First sessions of Sofia public inquiry confirm industry unknown to regulators

Friday saw the conclusion of the third session of the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry, following sessions on 10 and 17 August.

With more than 12 witnesses already having taken the stand before the three-person inquiry board, the prevailing consensus confirms a construction industry whose enforcement escapes the grasp of its regulators.

The inquiry board, presided over by Ombudsman Joseph Zammit McKeon and with Deputy Auditor General Charles Deguara and architect Mario Cassar serving as its two additional members, has so far heard from ministers and former and current chairpersons of the various authorities involved in regulating the industry.

The three sessions so far have looked at the incident from several perspectives, with the session on 10 August hearing moving testimony from Sofia’s mother Isabelle Bonnici.

This was followed by brief testimonies from Finance Minister Clyde Caruana and Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, with the latter insisting his only involvement is his appointing of the chairs and CEOs of the various regulatory bodies.

The back-to-back sessions on 17 and 18 August saw testimony from police officials along with former and current chairpersons and CEOs of both the Occupational Health and Safety Authority and the Building and Construction Authority.

OHSA Chairman and BCA Member David Xuereb, suggested a system of “naming and shaming” rogue “cowboy” contractors, describing the industry as an “ill patient that needs to be seen to”.

Xeureb attempted to outline the different roles held by the two authorities, confirming that “if a building collapses, that is the responsibility of BCA, but if workers are hurt or injured that falls under OHSA” when asked by the Board.

Despite this, BCA CEO Jesmond Muscat claimed that the Authority was not tasked with overseeing sites such as the Corradino building where Jean Paul Sofia was killed, as it did not affect third-party sites.

Sofia, 20, was killed last December at what was to be a timber factory constructed illegally on government property by Maltese developers with a criminal past and connections to the Lands Authority.

The inquiring board’s questions revealed that such responsibilities nationwide fall under the enforcement of just 13 OHSA inspectors and 21 BCA officers. Of the latter, only 17 are “on the ground”.

When asked to present minutes from an OHSA meeting in March that discussed Jean Paul Sofia’s death, Xuereb attempted to keep them from the inquiring board by claiming they were “confidential” and citing the inquiry’s terms of reference to present them behind closed doors.

The terms of reference for the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry give the board the power to prevent public access to information only in cases where it is “confidential in terms of the law, necessary for the security of a witness, or the interest of national security”.

During Thursday’s session, Mark Gauci, who has been CEO of the OHSA since 2001 and is retiring in two months, also testified. He said 72% of all occupational injuries happen at construction sites and that the OHSA hit a stumbling block in its investigation into the death as all the witnesses from the site refused to answer questions.

During Friday’s session, Board President and Chair McKeon characterised the construction industry as gripped by a “frightening culture of lack of enforcement”, asking former BCA chair Maria Schembri Grima, who resigned last February, what she had done to address this.

Schembri Grima, a close associate of Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, evaded the question. She could not name the appropriate authority to contact when asked who the public should contact by family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia.

She claimed the Kamra Tal-Periti (Chamber of Architects) should be contacted regarding structural issues but could not name the regulator for construction-related issues.

Testimony from former BCA CEO Karl Azzopardi, who Jesmond Muscat replaced in June 2022, also revealed that the BCA had completed work on three building codes which would standardise practices across the industry, but these have been gathering dust.

Finishing off Friday’s session, Muscat acknowledged the massive shortcomings in the regulation of the industry and admitted that the BCA does not “even know how many contractors are out there” as it does not have the data. He assured the inquiring board that all contractors must register with the Authority by October.

The inquiry board will reconvene on Friday, 25 August, with those wishing to testify under oath instructed to email with their evidence and details.

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1 month ago

It seems that nobody knows what they are supposed to do , except one who was fired for trying. I hope the Ministers responsible since the building spree since 2013 , are questioned about their contribution to regulate the building industry to cater for the explosive increase in building works, Avukat-Perit Musumeci should be called in and asked to justify his dual professional , ping ponging between a lawyer and an architect depending what he was doing at the time. Is that a conflict of professional interest , modifying the laws to suit the other profession , instead of regulating it.

1 month ago

But why is there a regulation in Malta?
workers with irregular documents and uninsured, and for those who have permits, when an accident occurs at work, they cancel their residence permits and are forced to return to their country.
you go to the dier and they don’t do anything to help the workers… you go to the ohsa and it takes years to close an investigation and even when they close it to the friend of the moment they don’t issue tickets and don’t give any penalties.
Structures and hotels that build the seashore eliminating the beach for citizens and do not even pay public land as rent.
Therefore it is obvious that today the building industry is a disaster, since those who should guarantee the laws are the first to be corrupted.
I end up saying that today these articles are out, because this time it was a Maltese who died, but go and check how many unsolved incidents of foreign people there are… obviously I’m sorry and condolences to the family and I hope they won’t stop until to when all thethose responsible will not go to jail…

Mark Debono
Mark Debono
1 month ago

OHSA hit a stumbling block in its investigation into the death as all the witnesses from, the site refused to answer questions? ???Surely they should be made to answer or else face jail????

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