Cost-cutting makes EU seafarer an endangered species, says Kinnock


WHEN poorly-paid crews and substandard safety equipment can save at least $1 million a year in running costs for a single ship, the European seafarer has become an "endangered species," the EU Transport Commissioner, Mr Neil Kinnock, has said.

Competition has forced EU ship owners to make radical changes in their working methods, including policies on employment and on "flagging out" to foreign registries, the Commissioner told a maritime conference in Dublin yesterday.

As a consequence, the employment of EU seafarers on EU flagged ships has fallen by about 35 per cent between 1985 and 1995, while the employment of non-EU nationals, particularly from the Far East, has risen by about 15 per cent.

Even as total EU tonnage has grown by 12 per cent over the decade, total employment has dropped by 27,000, he said.

In addition the average age of EU crews is rising: at over 40, it is much higher than the OECD average for Far Eastern countries, Mr Kinnock continued. Falling standards and working conditions have resulted in a shortage in supply of qualified European crew, in tandem with the change in demand.

This continuous decline poses a threat to quality, the Commissioner said. It means "a serious weakening of the wider skills base in occupations where safety consciousness, technical capability, cultural and professional adaptability and a sense of duty are at a premium.

"No one would claim that seafarers from western Europe have a monopoly of such qualities," he maintained. "Abilities and standards of maritime training in several other countries are high.

"However, it is justifiable to say that maintaining and improving the quality standards of the EU shipping industry would be much more difficult in the future without a strong and reliable core of EU seafarers."

EU funding for maritime training was sometimes cited as the "magic solution," he said. But the idea of a substantial and specific EU fund was not realistic.

Not only was there a shortage of resources, but the prime responsibility for this must rest with member-states, he said.

Lives of EU fishermen would be saved by a directive on vessel safety agreed at last week's EU transport council under the Irish presidency, the Minister for the Marine, Mr Barrett, told the conference.

A resolution underpinning Mr Kinnock's strategy document on maritime transport had also been secured, the Minister said. It recognised that training must be the "first port of call" for strong Community action.

Mr John Lyras, president of the European Community Ship-owners Association, said that European seafarers were no better than their counterparts in other countries. "Proper training is the key element, and it is a fact that highly-qualified seafarers of different nationalities are very often the norm in today's shipping environment," he said.

Referring to the Commissioner's strategy document, Mr Lyras challenged the view that substandard shipping was giving some operators an unfair advantage.

"Such unfair advantages are only possible in the short term, and in the vast majority of cases the real competition is from companies which operate highly-efficient vessels with equally highly efficient and well-trained crews, often from the Far East," he said.

The two-day conference is being hosted by the Marine Institute.