Three of Malta’s most prominent business voices had a lot to say in front of the board of inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia when a building he was working on collapsed. 

The inquiry, which commenced in August and concluded in November, heard testimony from 69 witnesses and reviewed an extensive array of documents totalling 1,800 pages. Led by former judge Joseph Zammit McKeon, the three-person board was tasked with investigating the allocation of public land for the Corradino project to developers Kurt Buhagiar and Matthew Schembri, and whether this allocation contributed to the fatal collapse in December 2022.

SME Chamber CEO Abigail Agius Mamo, Malta Development Association President Michael Stivala and Federation of Estate Agents Secretary General Simon Debono all testified in front of the three-member board, with their testimony shedding a light on the construction industry as it stood at the time of the tragic collapse.

Simon Debono

Perhaps the most shocking was delivered by Mr Debono, who testified that many bricks being delivered to construction sites around the country are only cast 48 hours before, whereas best practice requires a curing time of six weeks for the bricks to withstand the loads often seen in modern buildings.

“It is not the first time that bricks falling from a truck onto the road turn to dust,” he said, accusing the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority of ignoring complaints about the situation.

Ms Agius Mamo held back from making similarly incendiary claims, but her testimony was no less strident, with the small and medium enterprises’ lobbyist stating that those who try to do things well, trying to achieve a high standard, often suffer in competing against those who could not care less (jiġu jaqgħu u jqumu) about the consequences of their actions.

She defended members of the SME Chamber and other industry groups, saying that those who take it upon themselves to become a member of such organisations “are on the whole people who want to do things right and are committed to seeing the industry move forward.”

Abigail Agius Mamo

Moreover, she argued that although the SME Chamber does not have visibility into whether its members employ migrant workers without the necessary papers, she said the organisation “obviously tells its members that it is absolutely not a good idea and does not make business sense for them to expose themselves in that way.”

The question of migrant workers was pertinent to the collapse of the building in Corradino as a majority of the workers on site were foreign, including several who could hardly communicate in English. 

The board of inquiry also pointed out that her testimony as regards self-regulation stands in stark contrast to that provided by Dr Mark Gauci, the CEO of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority at the time of the incident.

Dr Gauci, who had led the OHSA for around 20 years, had testified that the authority’s activities served as a deterrent to anyone thinking of not following the appropriate measures.

However, Ms Agius Mamo argued that “we cannot rely on self regulation,” saying that “it is not the solution.”

“Enforcement needs to happen, and needs to be done by the authorities. Otherwise, what happens is that employers see that there are no controls in place.”

MDA chief Mr Stivala broadly agreed, stating his organisation’s belief that “everyone should be licensed.”

“We have been calling for this for years but the process stalled,” he said, explaining the principle that “a person should not just pick up some tools and becomes a contractor overnight. This is not acceptable.”

In late 2023, the first such licences started being issued, with demolition, excavation and construction activities now requiring a licence issued by the Building and Construction Agency. 

Michael Stivala

As to whether the sector should “self-regulate”, Mr Stivala pointed out that developers need to contend with over 20 different authorities to do a single project, each with its own regulations. That these authorities often do not communicate with one another and often have conflicting requirements leads to “unnecessary bureacracy that harms the sector.”

Regarding enforcement, the MDA president argued that “prevention is better than cure.” With this, he clarified, he meant that those who are not competent to do certain work should not be licensed and allowed to do it, because that then throws the responsibility on the authority to conduct regular checks.

“It is impossible to enforce regulations on every site in the country. If you have people who do not know what they are doing, you can have all the enforcement in the world but it will all be for nothing.”

Mr Stivala further argued that the sector’s problems are typically concentrated in small projects, since large projects have amny additional layers of scrutiny, including by the banks financing them.

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Written By

Robert Fenech

Robert is curious about the connections that make the world work, and takes a particular interest in the confluence of economy, environment and justice. He can also be found moonlighting as a butler for his big black cat.