MaltaToday | 22 June 2008 | Who to blame for the shipyards?

NEWS | Sunday, 22 June 2008

Who to blame for the shipyards?

After Wednesday’s announcement of plans to downsize and privatise Malta Shipyards, anxiety among its odd 1,700 workers ensues. Some of the former Malta Drydocks protagonists spoke to DAVID DARMANIN about what may have ultimately led to this situation.

Former Malta Drydocks deputy general manager Louis Ellul is today 82 years old. After retiring in 1987, government appointed Ellul to the boards of both the Malta Drydocks and Malta Shipbuilding companies, and again to their successor Malta Shipyards in 2003 where he spent three years on its board.
“I was one of those who always ensured enforcement of discipline and order while I was at the Drydocks. Problems started after Malta gained independence. The Drydocks adopted a post-colonial mentality that made its workers feel far too safeguarded. Unfortunately, there were times when this mentality took over the real objective. Also, management found the situation very convenient because it kept unity. But it was this kind of mentality that gave workers a false certainty of protection from the powers that be and the union. There were times when workers were held in very high esteem, that is undeniable; but to expect them being safeguarded ad aeternum was merely a miscalculation. The present situation in fact proves it. I am very saddened by this situation, as the workers do not deserve this. They are all very good-natured people… so kind that they trusted the wrong people.”

Anthony Busuttil, who recently published his memoirs of his career at the Malta Drydocks, joined the dockyard as an engine fitter apprentice just after WWII ended, when he was 15, earning seven and a half shillings a week in his first year. In the early 1960s, Busuttil became Chargeman of Fitters, and eventually also served as council member between 1977 and 1981.
“The representatives of the workers, the GWU, should be at the forefront of discussions now, even when it comes to deciding on the foreign companies interested in taking over.
“There were years when the Drydocks was profitable, but that was when it was self-managed. I am not saying that it started doing badly only because self-management was abolished, because there were also external factors that contributed to profitability issues. I think in recent years Malta Shipyards should have been more prepared. It should not have let in sub-contractors do the job its workers can do very aptly. In previous years, governments recognised and valued the skill of the dockyard workers – so much so, that the yards were often commissioned to carry out any sort of technical job for the government. This seems to be no longer the case.”

Michael Seychell, the former union representative whose main claim to fame is the endorsement of the pro-EU movement in the 2003 referendum campaign, says: “It is about time the Maltese stopped paying out taxes on dockyard subsidies.”
Seychell joined the Drydocks as an apprentice in 1955, was appointed GWU assistant secretary for metal workers between 1967 and 1970, took a year off thereafter to become secretary of the wood construction section. In 1971 he rejoined as secretary for the metal workers section and retained this position until he resigned in 1977. “I had disagreed with the union on ideas of amalgamation to the Labour party, so I left,” he said.
“I don’t mind paying taxes that are invested in subsidies that will bear their fruits… but with the shipyards it seems we’re paying for nothing. When I was secretary I remember Mintoff threatening to pass on the shipyards to the private sector. I think we would have been better off had he really done that. We can lay blame on the union and the workers all we want, but we must also keep in mind that, especially in recent years, that the shipyards’ management has made some grave mistakes that ended up costing a lot of money. There was a period when the Drydocks did make a profit, in spite of the 5,000 workers it employed.
“The fall of the shipyards is, in my opinion, attributed to Malta’s political history. When in government, both parties planned a strategy of their own and on their own. Had successive governments co-operated on the shipyards issue, they would have succeeded. They succeeded when they agreed on a common strategy for the financial sector, so why can’t they do the same for the shipyards also?”

During the 1987-1992 PN legislature, when current social policy minister John Dalli served as parliamentary secretary under George Bonello Dupuis, Dalli spearheaded negotiations for a major restructuring process undergone at the shipyards. Asked to comment on how he reconciles his past efforts to bring the dockyard back on its feet again and his position today as a member of the government planning the shipyards’ downsizing, he said: “The story is complicated since then there were a lot of developments since then. One has to evaluate what the reality of the day is. I don’t have all the details pertaining to the Drydocks at the moment so I cannot comment on whether or not it has potential to be rescued.”


200 years of the 'docks

19th century – Alexander Ball takes over the Knights’ corsair fleet in Cottonera, the start of the British forces’ largest military docks outside the UK.
1943 – The General Workers Union is set up by a dockyard employee and his colleagues in reply to the mass discharges in the post-war rundown, rallying behind the young and fearless Dom Mintoff.
1959 – Dockyards sold to Baileys of Wales against Mintoff’s demands.
1963 – Dockyards transferred to Swan Hunter, but without success.
1967 – The Six Day War and the closure of the Suez Canal removes 60% of the dockyards’ market as tankers returning in ballast from North Europe to load in the Persian Gulf no longer sail past Malta but round the African Cape.
1974 – The explosion of Italian tanker Agip Genova in Libya gives the dockyards the huge repair job that makes it register its first ever profit.
1975 – Mintoff nationalises the dockyards into Malta Drydocks, with a management council elected directly by the workers.
1981 – The Chinese build the 300,000-ton Dock No. 6. The shipyard can now service ships going through Suez, it builds single-point mooring buoys, offshore oil equipment, and chemical tankers. The government sets up Malta Shipbuilding Co.
1982 – The discovery of North Sea oil leads to a crash in the tanker market, which previously spent 30 days sailing from the Persian Gulf to Rotterdam. They represented almost 70% of Malta Drydocks’ turnover. The shipyards register a loss after a string of profitable years, and in 1983 workers and management agree to a 15% pay cut.
1987 – After drydocks workers arrest the former CIA spy ship Copper Mountain in the shipyards for the non-payment of repairs, and block entrance to HMS Ark Royal, the new PN government agreed to finance a 10-year restructuring plan.
1995 – The Um El Farroud explosion kills nine workers, instilling fear in workers and making management reluctant to take on work that is remotely risky.
1997 – Labour prime minister Alfred Sant appoints John Cassar White to report on the state of the shipyard and commissions Appledore to draw up a report. He transforms the management into a 50% elected board, a 50% appointed board, and an appointed chairman.
2003 – Malta Drydocks and Malta Shipbuilding dissolved and replaced by Malta Shipyards. As social policy minister, Lawrence Gonzi brokers a deal to transfer 900 workers from the 2,600 workforce into a surrogate company, Industrial Projects Services, creating a ready supply of metal workers for councils and government departments; and writes off Lm300 million (approx €740m) in debt.

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