By Bill Benfield in Britain:
Ferry workers at the end of their tether
Thursday 04 April 2013
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divide the world of the living from the world of the dead.
The dead needed a coin to pay Charon for passage and those who could not pay the fee had to wander the shores for 100 years.
By that token, the directors of the ferry companies that provide the lifeline ferry services to the country’s more than 100 islands will be beachcombing for a very long time indeed.
For seven months, often under harsh winter conditions, Giorgos Polilogidis has waited for one thing – his pay.
A veteran of the ferries, Polilogidis is among hundreds of sailors, mechanics, stewards and others who work on the ferries and, according to the seamen’s unions, have been going unpaid for months at a time.
“If they don’t pay me some money,” the sailor growls, “I’m stopping tomorrow.”
Ferries are the lifeblood of Greece and not only in the tourist season. Many of the nation’s islands depend on ferries for supplies of everything from food and medicine to fuel and machinery spare parts, as well as getting agricultural products to market.
The government invoked emergency powers in January to force seamen back to work after a six-day strike.
Like every other sector in Greece, shipping has been hit hard by the country’s financial crisis.
“They kept telling us that the situation would become better but after September things got very bad,” said deckhand Antonis Pelatis, who joined the crew of one ferry in April and didn’t see his first pay packet for 10 weeks.
Last month he hit his fifth straight month without pay.
Greece has been dependent on bailout loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010.
In return for its bailout, the country was forced to reform its economy, pushing through waves of austerity measures that slashed pensions and salaries, jacked up taxes and left the country mired in recession.
More than 26 per cent of the workforce is out of work and youth unemployment hovers close to 60 per cent.
Day after day, week after week and month after month, demonstrators pound the streets of Athens, demanding an end to the misery that the financial goons of the Troika have forced on them.
They are not only deprived of work, of wages and of benefits. They are being robbed of their futures by a gang of politicians whose only interest is to save the skins of their failed and unrepentant speculating mates, whatever it costs the people of Greece.
Austerity has failed dismally, despite claims by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who told Athens daily Ta Nea that austerity measures are working, despite growing hardship and high unemployment.
With nearly 1,000 people losing their jobs each day, hundreds of thousands of those still employed don’t get regular pay.
According to one of Greece’s two largest trade unions, the GSEE, about a million people in the private sector – roughly two-thirds of all private-sector employees – have had their hours cut or get paid several months late.
For ferry crews, there’s an added twist.
Often hundreds of miles away from home and with nowhere else to go, most end up living on the ferries until they can get paid, their families surviving on money borrowed from friends and relatives.
“People have families. Some have two, three kids. They’re being patient, so they can get their money,” said Thanassis, who works the decks on the ferry Theofilos, where he and his colleagues have been living, many unpaid in five months.
“We don’t even have enough money for cigarettes any more,” said Thanassis. “The company has promised to pay but still there’s nothing. We’re in a desperate situation.”
His shipmate Spyros hasn’t been paid since November and has been living on the ferry even though he rents an apartment in Piraeus.
“I can’t go home because the landlord won’t let me in any more until I pay my rent,” he said.
Unable to borrow so much from friends, he now owes four months’ rent.
Like the vast majority of their colleagues, Thanassis and Spyros didn’t want to give their full names, fearing that speaking out would leave them blacklisted by ferry companies as troublemakers.
“It’s the insecurity of unemployment, the fear, the terror people have.
“They are afraid they’ll be seen and will be stigmatised by the other companies and they won’t get any more work.
“They are afraid for tomorrow, the day after tomorrow,” said sailors’ union treasurer Apostolos Banasis.
Crew members earn €2,000-3,500 a month in return for months spent away from home and working days that often stretch to 18 hours – or, at least, they do when they are paid.
Given the financial crisis, the inability of some coastal shipping companies to meet their financial obligations is not surprising, claims Association of Passenger Shipping Enterprises president Michalis Sakellis.
Between falling passenger numbers and spiralling expenses, he says that “companies are trapped.”
Heavily reliant on domestic tourism, passenger traffic has fallen by 20-30 per cent in the recent austerity-hit years as Greeks see their incomes dwindle, Sakellis said.
Banks have stopped lending money and costs have exploded, with a doubling of the tax on fuel, which accounts for 50-60 per cent of a ship’s costs.
Only a few of the total of 26 ferry companies operating in Greece have been unable to pay their crews, he claimed, though he wouldn’t name which ones.
But on any given winter’s day, when not all ferry companies are operating, half of the ships setting sail owe back wages to their crews, he admitted.
On the Theofilos, Thanassis and others were refusing to work until back pay was disbursed.
The company is still contractually obliged to feed them and provide power.
But for Dimitri, a deckhand on a ferry under repair in Perama, near Piraeus, there is only power – and therefore heating and running water – between 9am and 5pm.
After that, the ferry engines are turned off, plunging the ship into freezing darkness and leaving Dimitri with only layers of clothes and blankets to ward off the cold and damp as he sleeps on the ship.
Unpaid for more than two months, Dimitri has nowhere else to go because his home is in a town in the north-eastern part of the Peloponnese, more than 75 miles south of Athens.
“My finances don’t allow me to get to the other ships in port where they have hot food and power,” he said. “So I sleep here.”
He has but one thing to be thankful for. He won’t be doomed to wander the shores for 100 years – unless his bosses continue to withhold his pay and he is deprived of even a euro for the ferryman when his time comes.
Greek seafarers & dockers in 24-hour national strike: here.
The Federation of Greek Seafarers Trades Union PNO have called a 24-hour strike for 16 April on all ferries, passenger and cargo ships, against a government Bill for the ‘restructuring of the Commercial Naval Affairs Ministry’: here.
- Hundreds of Greek seamen unpaid for months (ekathimerini.com)