DRAPETSONA — In rain and shrieking wind, the ferry strains at its ropes, the gangplank creaking and scraping against the pier. A sailor on night watch duty huddles over a portable heater at the entrance to the cavernous hull.
For seven months, often under harsh winter conditions, Giorgos Polilogidis has waited for one thing: a paycheck.
A seasoned veteran of the seas, Polilogidis is among hundreds of sailors, mechanics, stewards and others who work on Greek ferries and, according to 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 summer tourist season. Many of the nation’s more than 100 inhabited islands depend on ferries for supplies of everything from food and medicine to fuel and machinery spare parts, as well as to get agricultural products to urban markets. The sector is so vital that the government in January invoked rarely used emergency powers to force seamen – many of whom had been going unpaid – 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 unfortunately 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 paycheck for 2 1/2 months. Last month, he hit his fifth straight month without pay.
Years of profligate state spending and poor fiscal management have left Greece dependent on international rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In return for its bailout billions, the country pledged to reform its moribund economy, pushing through waves of austerity measures that slashed pensions and salaries, hiked taxes and left the country mired in a recession so deep and prolonged it has essentially turned into a depression.
More than 26 percent of the workforce is out of a job, and youth unemployment hovers close to a staggering 60 percent. 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 (kilometers) 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.
Some quit and move to another ferry company. But that means risking their claim to back wages, which are paid if workers are willing to wait long enough.
So most just wait.
“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 anymore,” 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 stigmatized by the other companies, and they won’t get any more work. They are afraid for tomorrow, the day after tomorrow,” said Apostolos Banasis, treasurer of the sailors’ union.
When it pays, the job of a seaman is relatively lucrative. Crew members can receive 2,000-3,500 euros ($2,600-$4,500) a month in return for months spent away from home and work days that often stretch to 18 hours.
Banasis said there were an estimated 900-1,000 people who were owed between two and seven months’ wages, mostly working for three major Greek ferry companies: ANEK, Nel Lines and Hellenic Seaways. The situation was particularly bad in February and improved somewhat in March, he said, with some seamen getting back pay, or at least part of it.
Hellenic Seaways declined to comment, while ANEK and Nel Lines did not reply to requests for comment.
Given the financial crisis, the inability of some coastal shipping companies to meet all their financial obligations was not surprising, said Michalis Sakellis, president of the Association of Passenger Shipping Enterprises.
Between falling passenger numbers and spiraling expenses, he said – ”companies are trapped.”
Heavily reliant on domestic tourism, passenger traffic has fallen by 20-30 percent in recent years as Greeks see their incomes dwindle, Sakellis said. Banks, under pressure themselves, have stopped lending money and costs have exploded, with a doubling of the tax on fuel, which accounts for 50-60 percent of a ship’s costs.
“We’ve been worrying and warning about this for the last five years,” said Sakellis.
Only a few of the total of 26 ferry companies operating in Greece have been unable to pay their crews, he noted, 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 said.
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 deck hand on a ferry under repair in the ship repair area of Perama, near Piraeus, there was only power – and therefore heating and running water – between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. After that, the ferry engines were 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 slept on the ship.
Unpaid for more than two months, Dimitri had nowhere else to go because his home is in a town in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, more than 120 kilometers (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.”