“It’s nothing but daylight robbery,” Charles Demicoli, the chairman of the Kordin Grain Terminal says about the charges for port handling services. “The worst thing is that at Kordin, where we don’t use any of the workers to offload our grain, we have the machinery to put it straight into the silo, and yet we still have to pay them.”
Port reform is on the agenda, but what changes can be expected are yet to be known. People like Demicoli want radical change. The exorbitant charges paid to the dynasty of port workers, which own a monopoly of the service on the island, are among the changes many businessmen and importers want to see in the coming reforms.
What is ironic is that the workers, who are in fact “self-employed”, are by law paid a national insurance and pension fund contribution by anybody who has to employ their services. “When we unload grain off a ship, we can only employ the port workers there,” Demicoli says, “and then we get to pay the charges, an administration fee to the Malta Maritime Authority, including the rate of national insurance and a contribution to their pension fund.”
These include those fees which go to what is called the ‘pensions and contingency fund’ which was set up in 1973. Nowadays it amounts to some Lm10 million, while port workers are also guaranteed their pensions by the state.
That means a levy of 32c5 each time for each tonne of cargo that is loaded or unloaded. An anomaly means that the fee is being charged twice, 65c, for unloading from the ship to the quay, and then loading the cargo onto the rail from where it will be collected. The 65c goes to the pension fund.
What’s more: it is the government’s Malta Maritime Authority that actually collects the pension fund “contribution” it redistributes to workers who are self-employed. A lot of ‘hands’ tend to be involved in the process of port handling in Malta: there are foremen for both on board ships and those on the ground, tally clerks physically check the freight being loaded off the vessel when today most freight arrives in containers that are never checked. And of course, port workers – there are always seven port workers on hand even if you don’t need as many workers. This is the rigid reality of port services in Malta.
What many ask of the reforms is how much of the charges currently in force will become reasonable, and of course, whether the anomalies will be removed. A spokesperson for Competitiveness and Communications Minister Censu Galea says that at this stage of discussions there is an agreement between the parties that no information is to be divulged on the ongoing discussions.
Costs are considerable for employing the port workers, whose licences are inherited by their children from generation to the other. Foremen, for example, are paid a tariff to supervise the work irrespectively of whether their services are employed by the ship’s agent. That means shore foremen will be paid 2c5 for each tonne of cargo, whether or not their service is required or not.
Several agents refuse to pay for the service when it is not even made use of. Others claim they have used ‘other methods’ in order to have as many as they require on demand.
Port reform is a big deal for the 300 or so workers who are entering into negotiations with the government on the issue. All of them General Workers Union members, they have already clashed with the union since taking on the services of the GWU’s former legal counsel George Abela, kicked out of the union after openly declaring he would no longer file court cases he did not believe in.
Along with Abela, representing the foremen is the PN’s president of the general council Victor Scerri, who will be meeting members of his same government to discuss the reforms.
On Sunday, the port workers met at the parish hall in Qormi, after GWU secretary-general Tony Zarb prohibited them from holding the meeting at the union headquarters. The workers responded with a unanimous resolution deploring the letter Zarb sent to all port workers, attacking the section secretary Emanuel Zammit, warning they would be ready to leave the union.