Interview | Wednesday, 10 September 2008

How does Paceville sleep at night?

Cornered on new legislation working against bottle shops, propositions affecting the fun element in Paceville and his views on the patronage of black people, GRTU Deputy President PHILIP FENECH has an elaborate answer to every question, but DAVID DARMANIN doesn’t buy it.

The recent enactment of a law restricting use of any alcoholic beverages in Paceville seems like an utter frivolity. GRTU Deputy President Philip Fenech, who has lobbied for this move, defends the introduction of the law as a step for cleaner, and a more organised environment in Paceville. But many don’t buy it. Factions of the public have discounted the new law as an astute move to get competing bottle shops out of the way. This way, Paceville clubs will have some breathing space over smaller, cheaper-to-run establishments. Ironically, if this perception should hold water, Fenech represents the only union that can really stick its neck out for bottle shops.
“Bottle shops are technically confectionaries. When they were liberalised, consumers set the trend of purchasing alcoholic beverages and consume them in the streets,” he started. “Bottle shops have now complained on the way these new regulations will affect them.”
Of course they would, and what did GRTU do to defend their interests?
“As per their terms of reference, bottle shops should sell items that are to be consumed at home not on the street.”
Terms of reference? Where?
“Well, that is the practice.”
Written where?
“A lot of things are not written. This is a question of law and order.”
So how did the GRTU react to this complaint?
“There was no official complaint. Obviously, we received comments. In fact, the legislation is not addressed at bottle shops but at the consumer who jumps from one place to the other with the same drink, and with no ethics whatsoever, walks into a bar with a drink bought elsewhere. This is not acceptable.”
Fair enough, so one would suppose that the GRTU pushed for better security at Paceville bars, promoted ways and means of filtering customers, or, gave ideas as to how Paceville bars can raise their standards in order to compete with bottle shops on quality, and not on cost-leadership…
“The consumer is responsible for this. This is why this legislation is addressed at consumers. People who buy drinks should know they should consume them at the place they bought the drink from,” he said.
Addressing consumers, screwing up small businesses. That is definitely not the reasoning GRTU used to counter-propose the rent law reform bid. But that is a different matter altogether.
It is understood that walking into an establishment carrying a drink bought elsewhere shows an utter lack of basic manners, and displays disrespect to the few Paceville entrepreneurs who have decided to invest in proper décor, equipment and entertainment facilities within their establishments. Other than that, it has never been illegal. After all, establishment managers are free to allow it. They are also free to ask patrons to leave if they are cheating them by displaying such manners. Club management should actually be the only ones responsible for this.
“It is not illegal to walk into an establishment with a drink bought elsewhere, but it is illegal to steal a glass from one place and walk into another,” Fenech pointed out. “It should come from the consumer. People making use of the services of an establishment should spend some money at that establishment. This is common sense. As you know, bars incur hefty costs – even with music, DJs, bands or whatever.”
Sure, as they do with security. Why can’t they also restrict entry to people walking into their establishment carrying a drink bought elsewhere?
“Certain places are set up with security guards, who limit these people’s entry. But the majority of other small bars have no security. In such cases it is the barman who must ensure that this very diffused practice does not happen at his establishment,” he said.
But still, the new law states that one should not carry beverages out on the streets, unless they’re sealed and unopened. What holds consumers from purchasing an alcopop from a bottle shop, keep it sealed in their handbags and open it at BJs?
“When you buy a sealed and unopened bottle it should be consumed at home,” he smirks.
Says who? It is not unlawful.
“No law will ever go into such detail.”
Clearly, this law has been introduced to protect the interest of clubs and bars.
“This is a misconception. This is not an economic issue but rather an environmental one.”
An environmental issue that has been resolved by the fruitless investment bottle shops made in setting up at Paceville.
“Bottle shops have only played a part in this. About 60 per cent of movement in the streets was coming from bottles hops. The other 40 per cent was coming from other nightclubs. Now the streets are cleaner and the area looks more organised. You no longer see pockets of people sitting on people’s porches or on roundabouts. You no longer see people sitting on cars’ bonnets. You no longer see glasses and bottles lying about in the streets. There is already more law and order. The law has been passed to protect the general environment and the culture. If the area did not have a mixed scenario, if Paceville was solely intended for entertainment, nothing would have been a problem. Not even noise pollution.”
On one hand, Fenech is concerned with the general environment and the wellbeing of Paceville residents, but then he is also an outspoken propagator of the 4 a.m. curfew extension. If time limits were to be extended, noisy customers walking out of clubs would surely be a nuisance to residents.
“This is a valid argument. Let me explain. The 4 a.m. question has come in because there was a 24-hour license before. There were people abusing this license as customers were carrying on until 10 or noon. The authorities observed that if they were lasting so long, nights would have been chemically induced. While some wanted a no-limit culture, the authorities did not much like the idea, so they ordered music to be switched off between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. They were after a cut-off time. We are now asking for this cut-off to be extended to sunrise. Now your argument that they could be noisy while walking out makes sense, but would it make a difference if there is noise at 5 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.?”
Still, such measures smack of shrewd ways to increase spend per capita within establishments, perhaps to make up for the severe slump Paceville has witnessed throughout recent years.
“Paceville has not taken a slump,” Fenech rebutted. “The supply increased and the competition grew harsher. Hotel beds have also increased throughout the years. There is a structural issue. There will always be a lot of activity among tourists. It is, after all, the area with the largest number of five star hotels. But what also happened was that large-capacity venues outside Paceville have also increased, and this is felt. But the spend per capita is still good. From the tourism side, we need to do more to increase numbers so that business there is sustainable. We need to pursue work on a distributed occupancy rate, which would positively affect the entertainment industry in general.”
What has made Paceville so successful in the 1990s then? Paceville thrived on its identity as the Mecca of decadence. It was so profitable then, that GRTU never dared complain about image, resident rights or the environment. So are we saying that as five star hotels started mushrooming in St George’s Bay, the crudeness of Paceville has been sidelined from the nightclub formula?
“Standards are improving, there’s not doubt about that. The scenario is changing extremely fast. But I completely disagree with the perception of Paceville as a place for youngsters. Paceville is full of pockets everywhere, There are two or three streets catering for this crowd. God forbid we had to think of Paceville as only three streets. It’s true, one of them has become extremely vibrant but that is not what Paceville is about.”
How many more streets does Paceville have? There is one four-star hotel opposite a noisy club. There is also a five-star hotel, The Westin, whose front gardens extend to Paceville, but its actual building is cut off. Then there is Hilton, in St Julians, which subsidised the refurbishment of a playground that was formerly used for acts of debauchery and drugs, but that is now locked off. Otherwise, Intercontinental and Baystreet are on St George’s Road, and the other five-star hotels are up in St George’s Bay, clearly detached from Paceville. That clubs in the Paceville area may be distracting hotels other than the Vivaldi, is hard to believe. But if clubs are now changing their business model to accommodate upmarket tourists, then well and good.
“I think standards will go up. Clubs can still operate within their scenario, targeting the same crowds. With pedestrianisation of certain areas, those three streets will be more zoned. Even with the introduction of a new outlet with more outdoor facilities, such as Mercury House. That’s going to raise even higher standards to the area. But we definitely cannot have half a dozen establishments dilapidating the area when there are so many millions invested and such standards going up. This is the whole idea on restricting noise pollution, there were a lot of complaints coming from hotels and also from neighbours, now nobody wants to say we want to kill the fun element. You can make all the noise you want within your establishment – and that has always been the law. Why should an establishment cause problems to another business in the area?”
If standards should go up, then such initiatives should be welcomed. But will security guards keep bullying patrons? Will they be regulated? Will they be trained in basic manners and customer care? Will they stop harassing every 14-year-old girl that passes by?
“Having been there for 30 years I think that the situation has never been better than it is now. Long gone are the days when you get organised thugs coming there. We used to face real problems of bullies asking us for money, drinking and not paying and there was a time when even the culture of protection money was being introduced. But standards have gone up a lot when it comes to security. It’s not easy for personnel at the door to control somebody who’s drunk and obnoxious and who is told that he’s to drunk to enter,” he said.
No one has said it’s easy. But that it is possible is no big secret, all one has to do is adopt the same standards used in many London, Dublin, Milan and Paris clubs. The Greek model could only lead to outright abuse and catastrophic consequences, as recently witnessed.
“There are now cameras in the area. This has conditioned everyone to behave – starting from the client, because now they know they cannot throw bottles or challenge security personnel, and the same goes with the heavy-handedness of certain security guards. When there is a fight it is not easy to restrain and you cannot really use gloves to do this. I’m not saying beating up somebody is acceptable. It is not, but you have to use a bit of force. It’s not easy trying to get someone out of a packed club. Many times things do get out of control and it’s not fair that when there’s a fight, security personnel are arraigned in court as if they are to blame. This is what the police do – they arraign everyone in a blanket form.”
Mark Grima, of Fuego Salsa Bars, has recently come up with the bright idea of propagating in favour of the use of weaponry by security personnel. Does Fenech concur?
“That was his personal opinion – I personally don’t think they should be armed. A lot of security guards are employed by companies, while others are employed on an individual basis. I still feel that they should be given instructions by management to use lip service at all costs first. But many times the security guard will have to use an element of force, to avoid repercussions.”
How about the basic concept of just restraining and stopping there?
“The difference is that some are security guards in the real sense and are well-trained while some others are literally customer care representatives, because they’re not exactly muscled to do the security job. All they do is greet people at the door and when there are hassles, they talk trouble-makers out of it.”
Meanwhile, Fenech was vague on whether or not he agrees on strict regulation for security personnel. That is, a law which regulates warranted guards and prohibits untrained ones from operating.
“Some of them are already regulated by the state. Not so many are employed individually. I know of at least four security companies supplying the area,” he said.
So why are these mishaps still happening?
“To be fair, I think that a lot of these mishaps were very hyped up in the media. Even when it comes to the police, I feel I have to defend them here. The stories we heard recently made people think we have some serious problems with the police force. I don’t think so. There will always be individual incidents when situations get out of control. I think this is what’s happening. I don’t think there is a problem – neither in the police force, nor with security personnel.”
Not even with basic manners?
“Service is of utmost importance and people expect to be treated in a nice way. The leisure industry is based on that pretext. People do not come out to be hassled but, after a week’s work, to entertain themselves. So there’s no excuse. Customer care should start from the door. There are polite ways of saying things, and whoever does not have the patience to say things in a polite way is obviously in the wrong business. Although, as I said, it does get tedious when you have drunk people literally forcing themselves and not wanting to agree with policy.”
Fair enough, but it would be nice if all policies were to fall within the parameters of human rights laws.
“I do not want to sound racist in any way, but I have had serious complaints from establishments that cater for a style of music that attracts black people. The issue is that certain black people, and this is a sweeping statement which I say responsibly and clearly, may be illegal immigrants – who have social problems. There were a lot of strong reports of handbags being stolen on a regular basis. Now, when they started restricting such people, it was misinterpreted that they were being racial. This was not the case at all. They were doing this because they knew where the problem was coming from. Now you might say that anyone could have been a pickpocket, but why did this problem occur mainly in these establishments attracting an element of black people?”
Oh, come on!
“They started restricting, not on grounds of skin colour but because of the kind of people they are. It is a fact that the majority of these people, illegal immigrants or whatever are black. So it was coming from them, but not because they are black – but because they are illegal immigrants and have social and economic problems. In fact there is also a small element of pick-pocketing coming from Eastern Europeans who are overstayed and are living in dicy circumstances. We also have reports that they could be involved in other illegal activities.”
Is this kind of restrictive practice not highly illegal?
“Not if you have studied a person and have enough suspicion that that person has been doing such behaviour. Many a time, they would be carrying knives or touting suspiciously in an establishment.”
They never checked me.
“They didn’t check you because you don’t look suspicious, but they check local people as well. It is the immigrants who came here illegally who are resorting to such crimes in the area. Complainants are telling me that they would like to restrict more since it is causing problems to their business – nobody wants to go out and have their handbags stolen, but at the same time they don’t want to be criticised. The advice we give is to work on it diligently and carefully, but it is a problem.”
Who is to say that foreigners account for the largest number of crimes? What statistic is backing up this dangerous argument?
“At the moment I think the highest number of crimes is coming from these people, from the reports that I have had,” he said, discounting the possibility that these “reports” could be based on the fact that Malta could very well classify as the most racist country in Europe.
“It is a known fact. You can see them gravitating suspiciously. But now again, the cameras will help a lot. If any of them tries running, they will be caught by cameras somewhere.”
So much for better standards, no wonder establishments are being accused of racism.
“If an establishment was racist, why is it still catering for or even employing black people? It is a question of filtering certain black people. The skin colour comes into it because they happen to be here illegally and happen to be black.”

10 September 2008

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