Greece flings life buoy to its shipping fleet

The Greek Merchant Marine, suffering the worst crisis in its recent history, has welcomed new government measures aimed at increasing its ability to compete in international shipping. Still, the measures fall short of what Greek shipowners had sought.

The new measures, announced by Merchant Marine Minister George Katsifaras last week, will allow Greek shipowners to hire up to 30 percent of their seamen from third-world countries and to pay them at their own countries' wage rates, provided there are no unemployed Greek seamen. This means a considerable cut in operational costs, especially for older Greek ships, thus making them more competitive. In return, shipowners will have to pay $30 a day to a special fund for Greek seamen for each ship operating with three or more alien sailors.

Shipowners will also be allowed to cut down the size of their crews - ''especially where foreigners are employed, provided such cuts do not affect the security and operational ability of the ship,'' Mr. Katsifaras said. This will allow new automated ships to be operated without employing the large crews demanded by the Greek seamen's unions.

In addition, Mr. Katsifaras said, officers and seamen who do certain jobs will not be allowed to work more than 71/2 to 91/2 months a year, ''because remaining at sea longer has harmful consequences on their health, their family, and social life.''

This measure means more than 20 percent of Greek sailors will at any given time be on leave each year, thus eliminating the possibility of unemployment for Greek crews and allowing the use of cheaper third-world crews. Out of 105,000 seamen, 8,500 were unemployed at the end of November - of these only 3,500 were receiving unemployment benefits.

Greek shipowners, commenting on the measures, said they would support Greek shipping and help it ''to become more competitive, and this will reduce unemployment and raise the influx of foreign currency into our country.''

A shipowners-union spokesman, however, made it clear that the government's measures fell short of what the shipowners wanted: ''Therefore, besides these measures, which are positive, we will need the practical understanding of those dealing with shipping matters of our real problems,'' he said.

Under the circumstances, even the government minister, Mr. Katsifaras, does not expect his measures to work miracles. He has not said anything about a shipowner demand for a law discouraging seamen's strikes outside Greek ports. But his measures are not intended to be a solution to the crisis. ''They will give our Merchant Marine a breathing space,'' he said.

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