The rules governing pitkala middlemen who auction farmers’ produce are set to be overhauled after tensions boiled over last month. 

The government plans on contracting these middlemen, previously self-employed, to provide the auctioning service for farmers twice a week.  

In April, Times of Malta reported how all of Malta’s registered pitkala had their licences suspended after they refused to put a guarantee in place to stop farmers from being left in the lurch. 

For the past few weeks, farmers ended up having to sell their produce themselves at the pitkalija produce market, traditionally operated by middlemen.

The pitkalija opens twice a week and sees hundreds of farmers drop off thousands of kilos of fresh fruit and vegetables that are then traditionally auctioned off to supermarkets, grocers and hawkers.

It is not open to the public and is distinct from the nearby farmers’ market that operates in Ta’ Qali.

Some 16 pitkala middlemen used to be licensed to auction produce to resellers, taking an eight per cent commission as their fee. However, they were all stopped from plying their trade at the pitkalija last month after simmering tensions with the Agriculture Ministry boiled over.

The issue revolves around a bank guarantee that pitkala used to be expected to make to be allowed to operate. The guarantee, five per cent of their annual profit, was introduced in 2015 after one middleman racked up huge debts and left dozens of farmers abandoned when he could not pay them their profits from produce auctions. 

Gives hope to farmers that they can fetch better prices

That will no longer be a problem as since the government has stepped in, it will be the state which ensures farmers get paid. Likewise, it will now be the government, not the pitkala, responsible for collecting cash from those who buy produce at auctions. 

Jan Bonello, who represents pitkala, said many middlemen used to find it difficult to put up the guarantee and had long been lobbying the authorities to introduce a different system such as a fine for those who did not follow the rules.

The solution being put forward by the government, however, was not ideal and he said that pitkala were now being left in the dark. 

“We wrote a letter, through our lawyers, requesting information on this from the minister responsible but we have not heard back yet after some two weeks and, suddenly, there is this call for applications,” he said. 

Bonello said the suggestion being put forward by the government would still negatively impact their operations and hoped talks would continue. 

On the other hand, Malcolm Borg, of the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, a farmers’ lobby group, welcomed the news.

He said farmers were pleased the government will have more control over those selling their produce by auction.

“This, together with a new barcoding IT system being introduced at the pitkalija, gives hope to farmers that they can fetch better prices and have a better working relationship with pitkala,” he said.

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