Maltese port worker licences are inherited but Brussels is now challenging this archaic system

The European Commission files infringement proceedings against Malta over port worker licences succession, which breaches EU law

Port workers can pass down their licence to their children, a practice that breaches EU law and is now being challenged by the European Commission
Port workers can pass down their licence to their children, a practice that breaches EU law and is now being challenged by the European Commission

The European Commission has started infringement proceedings against Malta over the practice by which port worker licences are passed down from generation to generation.

The Maltese port workers’ regime consists of a quota and authorisation scheme for all port workers and, within that system, a preferential scheme for family members of incumbent port workers. 

The European Commission had previously expressed concerns that the legal and regulatory framework for port labour in Malta is not in compliance with the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU as far as the free movement of workers, freedom of establishment and freedom to provide services is concerned. 

During Malta’s accession to the EU, the country had been granted a derogation to phase out the practice of port licences being inherited between generations, which is not permitted under EU law. The illegal practice was abandoned in 2007.

But in a 2017 U-turn, the government had unilaterally reintroduced the practice, passing Legal Notice 135 of 2017. Under that legal notice, port workers who before the 10 June, 1975 were licensed to work as general cargo stevedores, lightermen or in the port labourers section, were authorised to be replaced by their son, daughter, brother or sister.

The amendment to the Port Workers Regulations also established that port workers who had been in possession of such a licence on 23 October 1992, or during the period between October 2004 and October 2017, were also eligible to be replaced by their children.

When providing services to Freeport Terminals Limited, a number of so-called “casual port workers” engaged on a contract of services agreement between the Malta Dockers’ Union and Freeport Terminals Limited, claim to have suffered discrimination, not least with respect to their pay, which was less than their unionised colleagues. This constituted a breach of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Principle by the Malta Dockers’ Union, they argue.

A group of casual port workers have since filed court proceedings against the Ministry for Transport, the Malta Dockers Union and the State Advocate, in which they are contesting the introduction of this amendment, arguing that it had reintroduced the “blatant discrimination” between previously licensed port workers and them, and treated them as “second class” employees.

In that court case, which is still ongoing, the defendants denied the accusation that the legal notice in question had been introduced to benefit one group of individuals to the detriment of the plaintiffs, who they said, had not suffered any damages.

This situation had led the European Commission to begin infringement proceedings against Malta, sending a letter of formal notice to the Maltese authorities. 

In that letter, sent on 29 September the European Commission warned that Malta could be subject to legal action before the European Court of Justice of the European Union as part of infringement proceedings over its failure to correctly apply EU law with regards to its port workers’ regime. 

Under the terms of that letter, the Maltese authorities had two months to respond and address the shortcomings highlighted by the Commission.