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Next stop Castille, Zarb warns

Former Malta Drydocks council chairman Sammy Meilaq addressing shipyard workers in Poala, yesterday.

Former Malta Drydocks council chairman Sammy Meilaq addressing shipyard workers in Poala, yesterday.

A militant Tony Zarb yesterday warned the government that if it does not invite the General Workers' Union to further talks on the situation at Malta Shipyards, it would find the union and all the workers behind the doors of Castille.

Addressing hundreds of shipyard workers in Paola, the union's general secretary threatened further action over the future of the shipyards. He stressed that the union does not want to disrupt the yards' privatisation process or the early retirement schemes being offered, but it could not agree to the schemes unless the government guarantees employment for those workers who wish to retain their jobs.

Earlier this month, the GWU called on the workers not to subscribe to the schemes if this demand is not met. The union on Tuesday also claimed that a clause in the international call for expressions of interest in the shipyards is illegal because it states that buyers will not be obliged to take on any of the current employees.

The union chief yesterday acknowledged the presence of, among others, Labour leader Joseph Muscat and his two predecessors Alfred Sant and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. To loud applause, he said their presence meant a lot to the union and to the workers. Labour MPs Anthony Agius Decelis and Stefan Buontempo, deputy leaders Toni Abela and Anġlu Farrugia and former president Manwel Cuschieri were among those seen in the crowd.

Mr Zarb said the government had deceived them when, before the election, it had promised it would not downsize. "Dr Gonzi... we expect you to keep your promises. Castille is yours but the roads are ours. We want a solution and we are optimistic that you will finally understand the GWU," he said angrily, in contrast to a rather placid appearance the previous day when he addressed shipyard workers in Cospicua.

"The GWU wants justice. First we met in Għajn Dwieli, now we have met in Paola and soon we will be on the streets of Valletta... the ball is in your court, Mr Prime Minister. You either call us for a meeting to discuss the situation at the Malta Shipyards or else we will come to Castille ourselves with the workers."

Addressing a little girl holding a placard that read "My daddy wants work", Mr Zarb said that was exactly what the union was demanding: guaranteed employment for 'yard workers.

Referring to a comment by Finance Minister Tonio Fenech, who was continuously booed at the mention of his name, Mr Zarb said the privatisation of the shipyards would not turn out to be like that of Sea Malta, when the government had blamed the union for its liquidation after failure to reach agreement. Try to do that and you will see what will happen in this country, he warned.

Mr Zarb also spoke about the Fairmount contract, saying the union expected the Labour Party in opposition to bring the case before the House Public Accounts Committee so that it will be investigated and the people responsible held accountable.

The shipyard itself had commissioned a firm of auditors to investigate a ship conversion contract entered into with Fairmount Heavy Lift, after finding itself in a "disadvantageous contractual and legal position". The union claims tens of millions of euro have been lost on the contract, blaming it on mismanagement.

Mr Zarb said that judging by the government's attitude, one wondered whether it was the government that wanted privatisation to fail, so that it could then allow land speculation to take place by "friends of friends".

Former Malta Drydocks council chairman Sammy Meilaq also spoke, delivering an even more militant speech than Mr Zarb's. He warned that they were prepared to topple the government (nisfrundawk) if they did not get what they were asking for.

Mr Meilaq also questioned the figure of 700 workers being mentioned by the government as the targeted number of employees - downsizing from the present 1,600. He said that with the number of men from Bulgaria and the Philippines who are carrying out work at the 'yards, the shipyard could operate with just 70 Maltese.

Section secretary Paul Bugeja said that even before the Fairmount contracts had been awarded, the 'yard workers knew that would be "the beginning of the end" of the Maltese shipyards. He said the losses the 'yard suffered due to these contracts were being subsidised by people's taxes.

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