Maritime unions divided over ending of cabotage

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Since early January 1998, the Greek shipping industry has been facing serious problems, with workers mobilising strongly and making numerous demands, while at the same time being divided over several issues. A key factor in the current difficulties is the ending of the system of "cabotage", whereby the country's own ships have a protected market position in Greek coastal traffic.

On 15 January 1998, the Panhellenic Seafarers' Federation (PNO) held a 24-hour nationwide strike on ships of all classes flying the Greek flag. The trade union's principal demands were the protection of maritime workers' present and future jobs, and the retention of maritime "cabotage" - the system which requires a country's coastal traffic to be carried by vessels registered in that country. This privilege is set to be abolished in 1999 for Greek cruise ships and in 2004 for ships engaged in the coastal carriage trade.

In parallel with the strike, the PNO chair headed a delegation that met with Neil Kinnock, the member of the European Commission responsible for transport, in order to present its arguments on the need to preserve cabotage. In the meeting, which took place on the PNO' s initiative, representatives from five other countries - France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Sweden- also took part. The chair of the PNO presented the federation's relevant positions, which have been repeatedly set out in documents and memoranda. He laid particular emphasis on the problem of unemployment, which he said would be exacerbated due to the unfair competition that would arise if the cabotage privilege is done away with; he also touched on the question of national security in the Aegean area.

Despite their common concern and apprehension over a greater influx of foreign ships in internal marine transport, a decline in Greek shipping and higher unemployment in the shipping sector, workers' opinions appear to be divided, leading to heightened problems in the sector.

Conflicting opinions divide the unions

The basic differences involve two of the shipping sector's largest unions, the Panhellenic Union of Engineers (PEMEN) and the Panhellenic Union of Junior Engine Crews (STEFENSON), both members of the PNO. When the PNO called the strike on 15 January, both unions condemned the federation for the policies it has been implementing to date. Specifically, in a joint statement issued on 7 January, the two unions called on all maritime workers to take part in organising and carrying out the strike, "providing it with the necessary content, broadening the demand framework so that it meets the needs of all maritime workers." They criticised the PNO, stating that the decision to strike "is not a response to the explosive sharpening of maritime workers' problems, but forms part of the well-known tactic of restricting and degrading decisions on demands." The unions' concern is that, by focusing its efforts on cabotage, PNO is deliberately avoiding confrontation on other matters.

The executive committees of both unions lay the responsibility for the PNO decisions they disagree with on the voting system in the federation's executive committee, which excludes some parties. PNO's purpose, according to PEMEN and STEFENSON, is to capitulate to the shipowners and the Government. The two unions maintain that proof of the PNO' s "anti-maritime worker" attitude is the "general, vague framework of demands it puts forward, which makes no mention of the government's anti-maritime worker measures." With reference to the strike's framework of demands, they stressed the centrality of the demand to retain cabotage, and added that PNO's specific demand concerns only Article 3 of the relevant EU Council Regulation - 3577/92/EEC of 7 December 1992 applying the principle of freedom to provide services to maritime transport within Member States- which abolishes cabotage, and not total repeal of the Regulation.

With the aim of resolving the problems faced by the sector, PEMEN and STEFENSON presented a full framework of demands to a meeting of representatives of all maritime workers which took place on 12 February at the PNO' s meeting hall, on the initiative of both unions. It is worth noting that many of the two unions' demands are also demands of the whole sector which have been put forward repeatedly by the PNO. The basic demands involve:

  • abolishment of the "disastrous" measures of the Ministry of the Merchant Marine, which "are throwing maritime workers out of the ships";
  • safeguarding of the right to work, immediate assimilation of unemployed workers and crushing of the "slave labour ring" - as the illegal practices of private employment agencies employing mainly foreign workers are described - in combination with the radical reorganisation of the Maritime Employment Exchange (GENE);
  • repeal of Regulation 3577/92/EEC, which has set in motion the abolition of coastal shipping cabotage;
  • wage and pension increases for maritime workers;
  • protection and extension of workers' insurance and pension rights, renovation of the Seafarers' Home and improved medical and pharmaceutical care;
  • extension of Law 1264/82 on "democratisation of the trade union movement and consolidation of trade union freedom" to the maritime workers' union movement, which is also a demand of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE); and
  • democratisation of maritime law.

Specifically, as far as democratisation of maritime law is concerned, the two unions are demanding strict implementation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 9 (placing of seafarers), the ratification of Conventions Nos. 135 (workers' representatives) and 145 (continuity of employment for seafarers), and ratification for maritime workers of series of other ILO Conventions. With regard to reorganisation of the GENE employment exchange, their demands include the following:

  • its dissociation from the military;
  • the majority of GENE' s administrative council should be made up of representatives of maritime workers' organisations elected by the general council of the PNO every year;
  • the other members of GENE' s administrative council should represent the employers' associations and government; and
  • hiring of maritime workers should be effected exclusively through GENE, on a strictly observed "first-come, first-served" basis, in close collaboration with maritime workers' unions.

Finally, with regard to the employment policy pursued to date by the Ministry of the Merchant Marine, the unanimous proposal of the maritime workers' trade union organisations is to amend Presidential Decree 272/84. This currently provides for subsidies to unemployed sailors of a minimum of 50% of the collectively agreed basic wage which they would have received if working in their normal grade. The unions want this figure increased to 80%.

Commentary

Relations between workers, employers and the Government in Greek shipping are headed towards a crisis situation, under the impact of two main factors:

  • the coastal shipping sector in Greece may be facing serious problems owing to the international competition that will arise if cabotage is abolished; and
  • workers in the shipping sector have fewer labour rights and less legislative protection than other groups. Wages and benefits are not commensurate with the nature of their work, and at the same time the problems arising from illegal employment of non-Greek nationals are becoming more profound.

The existence of important differences between the PNO federation and the other union organisations is rendering the organised intervention of the sector's workers ineffectual, and is delaying the resolution of their problems. (Eva Soumeli, INE/GSEE)

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