Cargo haulers who collect and deposit containers at Malta Freeport yesterday stopped work in protest against what they say is a lack of equipment, which causes delays and consequent loss of earnings.

As the protest was in progress, Vince Farrugia, director general of the Malta Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises - GRTU, was holding talks with the Freeport's management over the issue.

He said after the meeting that the GRTU was now waiting for a reply from the Freeport over how the company intended to improve the situation. Meanwhile, the protest would go on.

Mr Farrugia said cargo haulers experienced an average of between four to five hours of delay every day.

He said that some time ago, an agreement had been reached with the authorities on the purchase or hire of new equipment to facilitate the work. But nothing had been done to improve the situation.

Cargo haulers, he said, carried cargo to and from the ports for exporters and importers, and as such they were clients of the Freeport.

He accused the management of failing in its promise to invest in equipment to ensure the efficient transfer of the ever-increasing volume of containers. The delays were causing the haulers to lose money, he claimed.

"Container handling is a competitive business and, therefore, the haulers cannot pass on the burden to importers and exporters."

He recalled that the GRTU had warned the IT and Government Investments Ministry about the protest on April 15 and a reminder was sent two days ago but the situation remained unchanged.

Cargo haulers yesterday parked their trailers in a long row outside the Freeport gate, at the side of the road leading to Ghar Hasan.

They complained about sometimes being at the Freeport very early in the morning only to have to wait until 3 p.m. or later. Lifters, they said, were either out of order or else taken up by other operations at the Freeport.

The necessary equipment would ensure that their operations were carried out efficiently and without delay.

They also lamented the lack of sanitary facilities or somewhere where they could have a drink or a snack while they waited.

The Freeport last night blamed the haulers, the abnormally large volume of work and the weather for the delays.

In a statement, it said it had suggested an appointment system, as is utilised in other ports, to distribute work throughout the day. However, the haulers had rejected it, congregating at the Freeport between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and causing congestion, queues and the consequent delays.

The Freeport also said the volume of cargo destined for the local market had been very high over the past week, with 1,500 containers passing through.

High winds on Tuesday had also meant stopping the operation of cranes for safety reasons, and in order to make up for it, Freeport workers had done 14 hours' overtime.

The GRTU were also accused of not replying to a list of proposals sent by the Freeport on April 19. Among the proposals were earlier opening times and opening on Saturday mornings.

The Freeport appealed for GRTU cooperation in finding efficient solutions to the problems, citing its important role to local industry in offering links with more than 105 ports around the world. The large ships would not come for such a small market as Malta's were it not for the transshipment service that it operated.


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