The process of downsizing the workforce at the shipyards has cost the government some Lm3 million so far, but that was a price the government was willing to pay as the `yards could now start to move ahead, Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi said yesterday.

He told PN supporters at Cospicua PN Club that the drydocks task force had drawn up a seven-year plan for the shipyards to reach viability. The first step was to reduce the workforce.

"This exercise has now practically been concluded as applications for the early retirement schemes close at the end of the month. Some 700 have applied to leave the `yards and the applications of 630 have been accepted. The 70 whose applications were refused felt very disappointed and I can understand them. But our aim is to get the `yards back on their feet, not to lose the best workers whose services the `yard needs," he said.

Dr Gonzi said that while the downsizing process had cost Lm3 million so far, politically there was another price.

"Half the number of those who left had started to register for work, so our unemployment figures would have looked better had we not taken the bold step that had to be taken. But the fact that the other half found a job immediately and another 70 want to leave because they have a job in hand shows that the economy is not stagnant, as the MLP is making it out to be," he said.

The restructuring process now enters its second stage with the training of workers so that they may be able to carry out different tasks and become more efficient.

Earlier in yesterday`s conference, Economic Services Minister Josef Bonnici said the funds given to the dockyard by successive governments over the past years accounted for between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of the national debt.

Prof. Bonnici said the government had started tackling the `yard`s problems in a serious manner in order to get the enterprise back on its feet.

"The Labour government of Dom Mintoff had washed its hands of the problem when it decided that the `yard would be run by workers, who elected their own council.

"Alfred Sant made a step in the right direction, which we supported, when he changed the law so that only half the council was elected by workers and the rest were appointed by the government. But this too could not work, so the Nationalist government changed it so that workers elected only one worker director," he said.

Prof. Bonnici spoke of the problems the Nationalist government had faced over the years at the dockyard and said that there now appeared to be a general willingness to forge ahead and both workers and the General Workers` Union seemed to have realised that restructuring and flexibility had to be carried out if the `yards were to be made sustainable.

Experience over the past months had shown that conversion work was ideal for the dockyard as it was profitable and not many competing `yards were able to do it.

Prof. Bonnici said the Nationalist Party always faced resistance when it wanted to change things at the `yards.

"There was resistance even to the closure of No.1 dock, the removal of the cranes near it and the replacement of the boundary wall, from which the people in Cospicua have benefited.

"Some Lm23,000 have been spent on removing the two cranes, while about Lm100,000 were spent to replace the wall and landscape the area."

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