14 AUGUST 2002
Although the Federation of Industry and the General Workers Union believe that some form of uniformity is needed for Maltas ports, the FOI believes that a major overhaul of the situation is needed. Meanwhile, the GWU would discuss the situation only if the Freeport sits down and discuss the details with the parties involved.
Regarding the criticism over high costs at the Valletta Port, the FOI agrees that the charges accrued are excessive, while the GWU feels that the costs related to a ship simply berthing are not excessive, it is when the stevedores and other "insiders" take-over that costs go up.
"EU or no EU, a major overhaul of the present situation at the ports is needed. We can't continue overcharging like we are doing now. We are losing important work just because we seem happy to continue working with an anarchic situation," federation of Industry Secretary General Edwin Calleja told The Malta Financial and Business Times yesterday.
He said that the sphere of cargo handling is a very delicate one as there no competition involved, which leads to higher costs, the highest when compared to the other industrialised countries.
"There is a good deal of interest involved but there are no steady tariffs. The tariffs are calculated according to one's mood. The terminal should be operated by one common parent and not by different people who all have some kind of presence at the port," Mr Calleja explained.
He said that costs at the ports vary because one ship would be carrying loose cargo, while another would carry different types of items. He also cited the fact that four burdnara (stevedores) would normally be working while the rest are at home getting paid just the same, as being unhealthy for any enterprise.
"We are losing work, everything that comes into Malta becomes costly and all those concerned should start working on an organised system.
"Some time ago we also lost the transshipment of cars coming through Malta because the port costs were so high. Do we want to increase our work load or do we want to continue working with systems that are a hundred years old?" Mr Calleja asks.
Speaking to this newspaper yesterday, Emmanuel Micallef, GWU Deputy General Secretary and a former GWU Ports and Transport Secretary, said that the tariffs had not been changed over the past 20 years and the only thing that has been changed at the ports resulted from a price modification in the early 90s.
He said that the GWU had formed part of a discussion on the issue but had walked out in protest because the Freeport did not want to have anything to do with it and, despite the fact that the government holds considerable sway with the Freeport, it just did not intervene.
The government had requested an exercise be carried out by all parties involved to identify the exact costs of services rendered by the burdnara, but since the exercise was finalised some six months ago, the government is still to act on it.
There was also a request to the Office of Fair Competition to issue a report on the current situation at the ports.
The parties involved, which also included the unions and the FOI, which later submitted it's own report, had given their views on the ports but nothing had happened.
The report was intended to be used as a basis for any action the government might feel needs to be taken at the ports. The government knows there is a monopoly in the transport services at the port, it was important for the government to have an exact report on the costs involved, so that it would be better placed to take any action, if this was needed.
The main benefactor of the monopoly situation at the ports is undoubtedly the General Workers Union. The GWU controls the cargo handling company, which is responsible for the loading and unloading of cargo to and from ships. The burdnara, who are responsible for the transport of cargo to and from ships, also enjoy a monopoly situation and licences are inherited from family to family. Those stevedores who handle bulky cargo belong to the GWU and, together with the control of the cargo handling company, is the reason why the GWU is in a position to paralyse the countrys ports. The expense for clearing and internal transport compared to the international shipping charge is very high indeed. A breakdown of the local costs include Free-in-Free out (FIOS) as well as landing charges levied by the government contractor, port labourers on ship and ashore, container charges, heavy lifts fees, transport and stuffing/unstuffing charges (road haulers), crane (from shore to trailer) and return of empty container.
The Federation of Industry is pinning its hopes on the report by the Office of Fair Competition and Mr Calleja has been making it clear for a long time now that a solution had to be found to the problem of port charges which is costing industry very dearly. "Everybody knows that the situation at the ports is a monopoly. The FOI has been speaking on this issue for years but nothing happens, what happens is that every elected government, being Labour or Nationalist continues to do with the monopoly.
On what was reported on the GWU weekly paper, It-Torca, last Sunday about possible redundancies for cargo handling and port workers if Malta joins the European Union, Mr Micallef said that an EU directive is stating that the unloading of ships can be carried out by the seamen of the same ship, something completely against the GWU principles.
However, the FOIs Mr Calleja said that he can't foresee any changes for port workers if malta joins the EU.