British shipbuilders fight decline

Britain's formerly great shipbuilding industry is continuing to fall behind international competitors in the struggle for new orders for the world's expanding merchant fleet.

Despite the shedding of 20,000 jobs within the last three years and better production methods, the giant nationalized British Shipbuilders Company has been increasingly unable to wrest contracts from busy yards in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and Spain. Shipbuilders in these countries regularly quote construction jobs at prices cheaper than those offered by United Kingdom yards, and the British Shipbuilders group takes longer to deliver ships.

Britain used to build half the world's merchant vessels -- including the famous Queen passenger liners -- but the UK is currently the 11th from the top in the international league for shipbuilding. UK output in 1980 was the lowest since the prewar slump of 1933, and Britain's share of the international market was only 500,000 tons gross last year.

British yards, some of which are threatened with closure and 600 layoffs, have less than 18 months' work ahead of them. Yet UK shipping companies have ordered 1.2 million gross tons of ships in foreign shipyards, and UK shipping lines seem to be anticipating a steady expansion in activities.

The London-based Lloyd's Register of Shipping has recently shown a significant growth in world shipbuilding orders -- 34.6 million tons gross in 1980 compared with 28 million tons gross in 1979 and 25 million tons gross in 1978.

Japan, South Korea, Spain, Brazil, the US, and Poland appear in Lloyd's Shipping Register as the world's leading shipbuilders, individually outpacing British efforts to regain a major share in the current shipbuilding boom. Even a large contract from Poland, heavily subsidized by the British government, has failed to keep the UK within the top 10 of the world's leading shipbuilders.

Yet Britain's marine constructors have proved that the UK still leads the world in turning out sophisticated vessels. The L60 million ($120 million) multipurpose North Sea oil fields support vessel launched at the Scottish port of Greenock in early April may be the first of a new breed of ships made within the UK to provide emergency backing and large scale firefighting equipment for deep-sea petroleum activities throughout the world.

Britain may also gain substantial shipbuilding contracts from the growing demand for luxury passenger liners. The famous shipbuilding company of Harland & Woolf in Belfast has had firm inquiries from a business consortium in California to build three cruise ships at a total cost of L600 million ($1 .2 billion).

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