30 JANUARY 2002

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Dockyard workers free to decide on retirement schemes - Tony Coleiro

By Ray Abdilla

The secretary of the General Workers’ Union Drydocks’ section yesterday flatly denied that he is at odds with GWU secretary general Tony Zarb over the early retirement scheme being proposed for the dockyard workers.

"We are both telling the workers the same thing, to think carefully before choosing to either accept or reject the scheme, but neither of us is telling them what to do," he said yesterday.

Mr Coleiro was reacting to certain media reports appearing recently which claimed that the section secretary was encouraging dockyard workers to reject the offer.

He denied that this was the case, saying that all he had done was to state his personal beliefs, which he stressed, he was allowed to do.

"Is it possible that in a democratic country I am not allowed to give my own opinion about what’s best for the Drydocks?" he asked. "My belief is that there should be a dockyard in Malta, so I do not want to see people giving up their jobs.

"I could have taken Lm15,000 and quit the dockyard if I wanted to, but I am not going to do that because I have faith in the ‘yard."

But he stressed that he was in no way influencing the other workers with his views.

"Those who want to accept the scheme will be allowed to do so. And the General Workers’ Union has the right to guide its members like the church does with its believers.

"The church is against the use of condoms but still thousands of people buy them. Does this mean that the church is doing something wrong in its preaching? No, simply, that people are free to do want they want," the section secretary said.

Mr Coleiro told The Malta Financial and Business Times that no one will stop him or other members of the Drydocks section from expressing their views. He also stressed that the financial aspects of the schemes had been drawn up solely by the government.

"We never got involved in how much the schemes would be worth financially, although we insisted the bracket for the over-56 age group would not be less than the package offered in schemes which were presented before because it wouldn’t be fair," he said.

Mr Coleiro admitted that in some ways, it made sense for workers aged 56 and over to accept the offer, since the work at the shipyard is very strenuous.

"But they still have the right to choose like everyone else," he said.

The restructuring plan for the Malta Drydocks and Malta Shipbuilding drawn up by a government-appointed task force targets reducing the workforce by half and removing subsidies completely by 2008.

The figures presented by the task force to government make it clear that a concerted effort is required by all parties concerned if the plan is to reach targets. Success will depend greatly on how fast the two yards are able to restructure, how flexible the workers and their representatives are going to be and above all, that the workload required to keep the ship afloat will actually materialise. There are still many variables that are not constant in the equation.

For the plan to work, turnover has to nearly double to Lm26.5m, from Lm14.7m in 2000, with losses forecast to drop gradually till 2008 when a profit, of Lm200,000, is expected. Subsidies will also be reduced from Lm16.6m next year to Lm1.97m in 2008.

The task force’s plan specifies that nearly 1,500 workers will have to sign up for early retirement, bringing the total number of employees at the two dockyards down to 1,624 from 3,550 at present. This will not be easily accomplished. Although the government will be offering a lucrative retirement package to those who accept early retirement, the question remains whether this offer will be accepted by nearly 50 per cent of the present workforce. This is one factor that has to be taken into consideration.

The GWU has made it very clear that it will not accept any layoffs. Thus, if the early retirement scheme does not reduce the workforce down to the required level, the task force’s figures will need to be revised. The restructuring plan includes a Lm10.3m investment in the modernisation of the yards and purchase of equipment, and Lm19.3m for retirement schemes and training programmes – this is an average of Lm13,000 for each worker to retire or be retrained.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt