A string of incidents and collapses on construction sites over the last years have drawn scrutiny to a sector that has suffered from a perception of lawlessness. While new regulations published this year bring a measure of order, one role has long been licensed – the actual mason.
“Masons have been licensed and regulated in Malta for around 150 years,” says Michael Cutajar, a licensed mason himself, and formerly an instructor to those wishing to obtain the necessary qualification.
“However, many people out there – including developers – are confused about the difference between a licensed mason and an unlicensed one, or to use a better term, a bricklayer,” he says.
Mr Cutajar is one of the main people involved in a new organisation that seeks to give a stronger voice to those involved in construction, demolition and excavation – the three particular activities that will need a licence to work come 1st November.
One of the new Association of Bennejja [Masons] and Contractors’ aims is to clean up the sector’s public image. To that end, Mr Cutajar sits down with WhosWho.mt to clarify what licensed masons do, what their responsibilities are, and how licensing has helped ensure a significant degree of safety on construction sites, despite appearances to the contrary.
The line between licensed masons and unlicensed bricklayers has been blurred, but the former have a far greater responsibility than other workers.
“Keep in mind that licensed masons are bound to the same guarantee as architects – we bear a personal responsibility for projects we have worked on for 15 years as stated at law.”
What the new association wants to do, Mr Cutajar continues, is restore the sense of value of licensed masons, which has been eroded over time – although the legal responsibility remains.
He asserts that “a licensed mason is not just any worker”, and should be considered along the lines of an architect.
“An architect lays out the technical groundwork, while the licensed mason is their eyes on site with adequate knowledge to execute the works,” explains Mr Cutajar. “There is the impression out there that an architect’s instruction is sacrosanct, but this is incorrect. That is why a licensed mason should not and does not only receive instructions and follow them blindly – they need to be evaluated and possible flaws pointed out to the architect in charge for further discussion.”
He contrasts this role with that of a bricklayer, who is a regular worker who receives and executes instructions.
There are currently around 1,800 masons with active licences in Malta.
Mr Cutajar points out that the licensed mason should typically work carefully and ensure that construction happens securely and without incident. This is due to the fact that masons licences can be revoked or have their renewal refused if they are found to have had issues. Without a licence they cannot work – so this has a direct impact on their ability to make a living.
“Unlicensed workers, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. If they don’t have a licence, there is nothing to take away. Even if there are serious problems on one site, and it is shut down, they can simply go and work on another project elsewhere.”
Mr Cutajar further explains that the majority of the incidents at construction sites in recent years did not directly involve a licensed mason since the works were mainly related to demolition and excavation.
The licensing of contractors seeks to ensure that contractors carrying out the works at the initial stages of a project are licensed and more knowledgeable of best practices through further training imposed by the recent legislation.
He explains that while the new association is still a work in progress, the people involved have already played an important role in influencing legislation.
He points to the challenges licensed masons and the broader construction industry faced following a legal notice published in 2019, which increased the onus of responsibility on licensed masons, clarifying an obligation for the presence of a licensed mason on a construction site during the execution of the works.
“This was a difficult obligation,” admits Mr Cutajar. “If the licensed mason was sick or abroad, or had some family emergency, works would need to be brought to a halt, affecting the livelihood of everyone else involved. It effectively made everything depend on one individual’s constant availability.”
The new rules that entered into force in July 2023, however, contain provisions for another certified worker to support the licensed masons in such instances, acting as the responsible person on site in his absence and ensuring that work can continue unabated.
As the long-awaited reforms in the construction sector continue to take shape, Mr Cutajar is adamant that the industry needs to get itself organised. He encourages all those eligible to reach out and eventually become members, “so that we can hear their opinions and work together towards achieving the common goals”.
He also notes that in view of further incoming obligations related to licensing, the association wants to do more training and foster more awareness about safety on construction sites.