Updated 9.20am with ministry, PN comments

“Total chaos” is expected at the pitkalija fruit and vegetable market in Ta’ Qali on Monday after all registered middlemen, who auction their produce to resellers, had their licences suspended. 

Jan Bonello, who represents pitkala middlemen, told Times of Malta that the farmers will likely have to sell the produce themselves when the market opens next week. 

“We don’t know what to expect on Monday. It will probably be a big mess. These farmers do not know how the pitkalija system works – it is quite complicated,” he said. 

The pitkalija opens twice a week and sees hundreds of farmers drop off thousands of kilos of fresh fruit and vegetables that are then 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 are licensed to auction produce to resellers, taking an eight per cent commission as their fee. However, these middlemen have this week all been informed that they will not be allowed to ply their trade at the pitkalija after simmering tensions with the Agriculture Ministry boiled over. 

The issue revolves around a bank guarantee that pitkala are expected to pay 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 in the lurch.

However, Bonello, himself a pitkali operator said many middlemen found it difficult to put up the guarantee and have been lobbying authorities to introduce a different system. 

“We are suggesting that pitkala should be fined if they ever default on a single payment to a farmer and that they should not be eligible to operate until their position is rectified. We believe this would serve as enough of a deterrent and will not pose the financial pressures of the current bank guarantee,” Bonello said.

The Agriculture Ministry did not reply to questions sent by Times of Malta earlier this week.

Malcolm Borg of the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, a farmers’ lobby group, said the bank guarantee system had been introduced to ensure farmers were not taken advantage of.

Most farmers, he said, already operated on razor-thin profit margins and could not afford to spend weeks or months chasing their auctioneers for payment. 

“The last thing we need is for farmers to not get paid because the government removed the bank guarantee,” he said. 

On Thursday, the Agriculture Ministry texted the nearly 1,200 farmers that are registered to have their produce sold by pitkala.

The farmers were informed that the pitkalija would be opening on Monday, but unless the issue was resolved farmers would then probably have to sell the produce themselves. 

This, Bonello noted, would raise multiple concerns. 

“I have one farmer for instance that contacted me with 200 of those large green crates full of strawberries and he is one of many farmers. This produce needs to be sold or it will perish. So, unless this is coordinated, it will be a huge mess,” he said.

To make matters worse, the idea of hundreds of farmers crowding the pitkalija flies in the face of COVID-19 regulations, he added. 

“I hope the authorities are going to address this situation with the importance it deserves,” Bonello said.

Market to open at 2am on Monday - ministry

The Agricultural Ministry issued a statement on Saturday morning after Times of Malta published its report, confirming that it was concerned the impasse would lead to confusion at the Ta' Qali market. 

The market will open at 2am on Monday morning, with ministry officials present to oversee and coordinate. Farmers will be guided to spots where they can set up and sell their produce directly. 

Fruit and vegetable sellers will be allowed into the market at 4am, the ministry said. 

In its statement, the ministry said bank guarantees were needed as a form of security to ensure middlemen paid all their dues. 

“The ministry cannot risk having farmers not getting paid,” it said, saying it was negotiating with pitkala middlemen in good faith. The association wanted its middlemen's commission to double, the ministry said. Until both sides reached an agreement, bank guarantees would remain a requirement, it said. 

'Management by crisis' - PN

In a statement, PN MP Edwin Vassallo said the pitkali conflict showed that the market was being operated under a "management by crisis". 

The main priority should be ensuring the market operated at maximum efficiency while public health guidelines were respected, the PN said, while ensuring agricultural produce is sold at a price satisfactory to all parties. 

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