Port workers have asked former General Workers Union legal advisor and former deputy leader of the Labour party Dr George Abela to act as their legal representative in negotiations with the government, on port reform.
Abela confirmed his appointment as the legal advisor of Port workers, when contacted by Business Today.
Abela had fallen out with MLP leader Alfred Sant before the 1998 election. Subsequently Abela had also fallen out with GWU secretary general Tony Zarb.
GWU’s secretary general Tony Zarb refused to comment on Abela’s appointment but according to Joe Saliba, a representative of the port workers, Abela’s appointment will be discussed with the GWU’s administration in a meeting scheduled
for next Monday.
Port workers are an organised group of self-employed persons licensed to unload containers at the port. Port workers still inherit their licence in what is viewed as an archaic practice.
The government has negotiated with the European Union to ensure that the next generation of port workers will be the last one to benefit from this feudal practice.
Although they are self employed, port workers are represented by the Aviation and Maritime Section of the General Workers Union led by Emmanuel Zammit.
Zammit’s section has endorsed the choice of Abela as the port workers’ representative, prompting an internal crisis in the General Workers Union.
The government is committed to overhaul port services by July 2006 when the tender for cargo handling will be awarded.
The GWU, which had a monopoly on cargo handling, is currently bidding alongside five other companies for this contract.
In order to deliver on his promise to reduce costs at the ports by 25 per cent, Minister Censu Galea is also committed to reform other port services including the port workers scheme.
The GWU is not only risking a loss of financial revenue if it loses the tender for cargo handling, but it could also lose its strategic strength in the ports if the port workers scheme is overhauled.
But by resorting to George Abela’s assistance, port workers and the GWU section representing them risks irking Tony Zarb and the militant faction leading the union.
In April 2004, George Abela had represented the Maritime and Aviation Section of the GWU as well as three other unions in negotiations with the government on the restructuring of Air Malta.
This led to the signing of an agreement between the unions and the government, which guaranteed all jobs at Air Malta.
Abela’s role in the Air Malta deal had created a rift between Zammit and Zarb.
According to sources, Zammit was perceived as being closer to Manwel Micallef than to Zarb in the leadership contest in October in what was seen as a showdown between militants and moderates.
But following his triumph over Micallef, Zarb’s leadership was undermined by the union’s failure to secure jobs at Sea Malta.
This has prompted concern among workers facing restructuring that the militants at the union’s helm are not able to guarantee their jobs.
The Sea Malta debacle and the GWU’s shows of militancy during CHOGM week had a negative impact on the MLP’s electoral fortunes. The party received a nosedive in MaltaToday’s December survey.
This has prompted speculation that the party had put pressure on the union to stop its street protests in order not to galvanise the Nationalist vote before next March’s local elections.
The return of George Abela as the legal representative of port workers could further unsettle the internal equilibrium in the General Workers Union.