The laissez-faire mindset of the government in the enforcement of regulations is endemic. Small businesses often complain that while this administration has good working relationships with big business, modest economic operators are treated with little respect.

To provide haulier services in Malta one needs a licence under the Cargo Clearance and Transport Act. Hauliers operate in a regulated market where anyone providing cargo handling services needs a licence from the Comptroller of Customs. This requirement may be based on the need to ensure that those who have access to the points of entry of imported goods in our ports know their legal obligations that are meant, among other things, to curb abuse of smuggling and illegal importation of illicit material like drugs.

Hauliers organised in the GRTU – the Malta Chamber of SMEs complain that control at points of entry of cargo are lax and the authorities seem to be closing one, if not two, eyes when unlicensed cargo clearance and forwarding agents are allowed to ply their services in competition with licensed hauliers. 

When the GRTU complained to the Comptroller of Customs, the Customs Department initially issued stickers to licensed operators but the measure was only enforced for a few weeks. It now seems there is no longer a level playing field as unlicensed forwarding agents compete with licensed hauliers who have to observe the strict conditions tied to their licence.

It is not clear why the Customs Department persists with this unfair treatment of licensed hauliers. Is it the usual lack of commitment of many in the public service to enforce sensible regulation? Alternatively, is it a not-so-transparent attempt to liberalise the cargo clearance and forwarding market without first entering into discussions with the union that represents licensed hauliers?

The president of the GRTU’s hauliers section, Karmenu Zammit, is understandably irked by the blatant abuse of unlicensed service providers who are competing with hauliers. He is even more disappointed by the lack of action taken by the Customs Department to curb such abuse. He remarks that if the government wants to liberalise the sector, it should enter into discussion with the union to discuss the level of compensation to be given to those who, up to now, operate in a protected market. This practice was adopted by previous administrations when they liberalised certain economic activities.

There may be a good case for the liberalisation of the cargo handling market for the benefit of consumers. This, however, has to be done in a way where new operators are bound by strict obligations to prevent abuse of Customs regulations. Those who in the past invested in their business to provide cargo handling services have a right to ask for reasonable compensation to give up some of their rights enshrined in the Cargo Clearance and Transport Act.

The government needs to explain what its intentions are for the transport of imported goods from our ports and airport. It also needs to reinforce its determination to curb abuse by smugglers and importers of illicit goods like drugs through our ports. A revision of the regulations in place will be needed to achieve these aims.

Changes that affect this economic sector should be done in consultation with both cargo handling services providers and also with businesses that use these services.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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