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Editorial | Wednesday, 07 April 2010 Issue. 158

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Requiem for a Dockyard

Last week, the country witnessed an end of an era lasting more than 160 years. And yet, there was hardly a whimper in the local press.
To many, the closure of ‘tat-Tarzna’ spelt nothing more than the end of a heavy financial drain on the nation: an impression held largely by people who would not be able to pinpoint the dockyard on a map, let alone who number shipyard employees among their acquaintances.
It is true that the Malta Dockyard has cost the nation millions in losses, but now that its gates are shut perhaps it is worth asking whose fault this really was. Certainly the Nationalist administration must assume the lion’s share of the blame – having been in power for the past 23 years, and more specifically having overseen the ill-fated privatisation process – but it would be unfair to hold the present government entirely responsible.
The preceding Labour administrations of Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici are equally to blame: having run the Dockyard for all the world as if it were the Labour Party’s own private property. Managers were appointed purely on the basis of partisan loyalty, and not on merit or managerial skills. The ‘Zejtun clan’ ruled the roost in those days, and no dissent was allowed.
It was Malta’s own Cultural Revolution: there was a core group of around 150-200 dockyard workers who were allowed to do nothing at work, but were still granted overtime and extra income. Some of these were given promotions far beyond their abilities. This shameful mismanagement was to haunt the Dockyard for the rest of its existence.
The Labour Government was also the creator of the Workers’ Council. Ordinary workers were voted in to lead the company, with no formal training in management or any knowledge of finance. They were basically little men with very big egos, and a Lilliputian concept of the wider world. They were used by both the Labour Government and the General Workers’ Union to foment trouble, and retained by the Nationalist government between 1987 and 1996.
It was amazing how people like Sammy Meilaq – who led the Yard into the ‘Princess Tanya’ debacle, a project which cost Malta Drydocks over GPB £11million– were retained in spite of their obvious unsuitability to a management post. Employees would be brought in on overtime, not because there was work for them to do, but merely because the Council’s dogma stated that each GWU member had to earn a certain amount of overtime per week.
This was well known to one and all, but both Red and Blue administrations went along with the charade, and - worse still - continued to give guarantees to the banks. The national debt increased exponentially as a result, but there was a short-sighted political advantage to be gained. Basically, it was a case of buying industrial peace with taxpayers’ money.
Then, we have the valiant GWU. Statutorily part of the Labour Government in the 1970s/1980s, the union was jointly responsible for what went on during that period. It supported the Workers’ Council policies – among them, that non Union Members would not be allowed to work overtime – and like the MLP, it also exploited the workers for political ends.
But where the Union really signed the Dockyard’s death warrant, was when it imposed a condition that overtime had to be granted on a rotation basis. This killed any initiative of the hardworking employees (of whom there were many), and rewarded troublemakers for doing nothing.
Another important factor was the workers themselves – the big losers in this disaster, and also the victims of decades of deceit. Over the years they had been led to believe that the nation would always pay to keep them in employment. Even before the last election, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi sent each dockyard worker a personal letter to the effect that their jobs were somehow guaranteed. In the light of last Wednesday’s development, we will leave our readers judge whether this was dishonesty or not.
Finally, a comment on the role of the various Nationalist administrations in the closure of the Drydocks. Various ministers have alleged that the GWU’s behaviour had made the Dockyard unmanageable. There is some truth to this, but the fact remains that Nationalist governments have never had the political will to administer the Dockyard. It seems their only strategy was to offer early retirement schemes, costing the taxpayer millions of liri, and depleting the Yard of its best and most productive workers.
Last week’s closure of the Drydocks results not only in the loss of some 60 ‘guaranteed’ jobs. The major cost to Malta is measured more by the loss of the technical know-how and the culture of heavy industry.
Meanwhile, there is virtually no hope that a small company like Palumbo, which is valued at a mere €10 million, will inject the capital and introduce the know how to make the Dockyard the leading Shipyard it once was.
The net result? Malta will never again rank among the big names of the global maritime industry, and we shall all be the poorer as a result.

 


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