Out with the old, in with the new”. This is a classic motto recycled over and over again
throughout generations, often used to justify the changes permeating throughout society and our own lives. With the amount of goods we claim as broken or useless, the world is gradually developing into what is branded as a ‘throw-away society.’ This ‘garbage’ ranges
from the obvious examples of food waste, to the material goods that have broken beyond apparent repair, to the objects we choose to abandon in exchange for their newer, more efficiently innovated counterparts. In this ‘throwaway society’, some professions are gradually in danger of extinction. Indeed, coming across a blacksmith, a cobbler, a knife grinder or a shoemaker is a rare sight in every town or village. Ivan Attard is one of the few remaining sheet metal workers in Malta. A profession which is gradually fading away in the name of what we often define as ‘progress’. He is the third generation of a family of sheet metal workers who notwithstanding the challenges and uncertainty the profession offers, still survive. Their purpose has changed, yet Ivan found a way to remain relevant. Uncertainty still looms, yet nothing disheartens him to keep smiling and looking for ways how to ward off the challenges progress offers.
We met Ivan in his workshop set in a picturesque building on the Msida coast, just a few steps away from the busy streets, the yacht marina and several offices. The place seems to take you back in time with various old machinery and tools scattered here and there in the
workshop. Ivan’s face glows with enthusiasm when we ask him to tell us more about those tools. He goes into so much detail explaining every single bit and its role in his everyday work. Some of his tools are over eighty years old, yet still fully functional. There is a sense of sadness in his eyes when he remembers the daily struggle he faces to survive and the indifference society seems to show towards such long standing professions.
Our conversation quickly shifts towards the relationship between the profession and his family. Ivan notes that his father was a sheet metal worker and even his grandfather.
“Some seventy years ago, my grandfather started working as sheet metal worker in Sliema, and in 1960, moved to Msida from where we still operate. It was a time when
this profession was in high demand and with nearly a metal sheet worker or two in every town or village.” Ivan’s father took over the business and continued to run it alone for the next three decades. In 1996, Ivan joined his father. “From a very young age I used to spend my weekends and holidays there, watching my father carefully work on some broken item or a new order. It came quite natural for me to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
Times have changed and the industry is constantly under threat by an era which has made the concept of ‘disposable’ a norm, rather than the exception to the rule. “People are surrounded by DIY stores and other outlets which provide them with ready-made products,
thus defeating our purpose.” He adds that we live in a time of uncertainty where it is hard to ensure consistency. “There are months when I hardly earn enough for a decent salary, whilst other months turn out to be surprisingly busy. Inconsistency is a serious issue as it does not offer you the possibility to plan ahead.”
We ask Ivan what his daily tasks are. “People no longer come to us to mend their pots or pans. Those items are classified as disposable today. Our main work consists of the repair of industrial dishes and chimneys among others. The list of works we still service is getting thinner. Unfortunately, our work consists mainly of one-offs, and that is a huge disadvantage for us.”
Today, at the age of thirty-six, Ivan looks ahead at the future of his industry and his own. When his grandfather moved into the current workshop, he had two employees. His work was in high demand and the future of the industry looked very promising. Today, fortunes have changed and he cannot afford an extra pair of hands. Plastic has taken its toll limiting the scope of Ivan’s profession. Not to mention ready-made imported products. Ivan is not disheartened and notes, “If we look back, my grandfather and father found opportunities in
the market which kept them going. There are certainly new opportunities in the years to come. The future is hard to predict and all we can do is live day by day hoping things will get better or at least remain the same.”
© 2019 – VIDA Magazine