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Hardly anyone knows better Lithuanian mariners and their issues than 64-year-old Petras Bekeza, the chairman of the Lithuanian Seamen’s Union (LSU). Having spent years in the smooth and choppy waters in far-away seas, as well as nearby waters, he now takes care of his peers and a younger generation of seafarers in his Klaipeda office. To learn more of Lithuanian seamen’s lives at sea, The Baltic Times sat down with the LSA chairman for an honest and open conversation.
I know that the Lithuanian Seafarers Union is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Quite an impressive commemoration for a country whose years of independence are a lot shorter than that. Tell us, please, how important is the anniversary for the LSU, and you personally.
This is what we really are proud of. Interestingly, the Lithuanian Seamen’s Union was re-established four years before the restoration of Lithuanian Independence, in March 1991. With the independence restoration, the Union’s major concern was to keep the ships in the fleet of independent Lithuania. I am proud to tell you that we succeeded in managing, though the Soviet flags were replaced with the three color-striped Lithuanian flags. Sure, the main thing back then was putting in order all those legislative things and sorting out all those ownership and legal intricacies. Lithuania today is, no doubt, a sea state, with its booming Klaipeda port, seamen schools, the Lithuanian Maritime Academy and other maritime establishments. In fact, being a small country, Lithuania is itself able to prepare a very wide range of the sea workforce, from sailors to senior officers. However, the maritime legislation still needs some fixes that we’re working on, but it is functioning quite well on the whole. What sometimes irks me in dealing with the Vilnius-based authorities is their reluctance and inability to grasp the issues we see quite clearly. Sometimes I even reckon that the distance between Klaipeda and Vilnius, a mere 300 kilometers, is to blame. How otherwise can one explain that what is quite obvious in Klaipeda is unclear in Vilnius? Speaking of our ordinary activities, I’d mention issuing the International Seamen Cards, providing our seamen with proper uniforms and taking care of mariners when it comes particularly to legal issues. Sure, the Union has played a big role in ratifying all the international seafarer conventions.
How many members does the LSU have?
Currently, we have over 2,600 seamen registered with our Union. However, the list with all other personnel engaged in maritime activities is a lot longer, over 7,000 people.
Still, the number of seamen has shrunk over the last 20 years…What is to blame for this?
Well, we all have to remember that Lithuania once had had a very large fishing ship fleet. But because of the malignant approach to it by some of the now highly touted Lithuanian politicians, it has been virtually destroyed. The politicians who have already made their imprint in the modern Lithuanian history books then believed that independent Lithuania did not need such a big fleet and let it go in disarray. Speaking of the seamen numbers, now and then, we perhaps now have a couple thousand less. As I mentioned, this is due to a lot smaller fishing boat fleet, where now some 2,000 Lithuanian seamen work currently.
As far as I am aware regarding EU policies and their coverage in Lithuanian media, it seems to me that Lithuanian fishermen, like no others, have suffered most from them. Effectively, due to the EU restrictions, Lithuanian oceanic fishermen are being pushed out of the most-sought fisheries off the African coast. Is that of your concern? Has the EU membership played out in any favor of the Lithuanian fishermen?
I am well aware of what you’re speaking of. Though the Union doesn’t have anything much to do with oceanic fishing. Whatever we speak of, either our agriculture or fishing issues, the European Union had placed a lot of restrictions on Lithuania before our EU accession. In fact, few are aware that, namely, the European Union has put a limit on our seamen school admissions, urging them to abide by the EU regulations and not to admit more students than it has set. We’ve been through times when the European Union demanded our seamen to scrap the Lithuanian ships complying with the EU regulations.
Although our seamen, in terms of skills, have always been on par with their British and German peers, nevertheless they, after Lithuania started enjoying the overall EU membership benefits, were paid far less, matching the pay of Asian seamen. I’m here giving just some examples of the EU’s impact on the Lithuanian maritime affairs. I’d rather want you make your own conclusions. Obviously, some things have been missed out on before signing the EU-Lithuanian accession treaty.
To be a seaman in the Soviet era meant accessing Western goods and their import, which could be turned into a significant perk to the main salary. Don’t you think the profession, with the borders being free and goods stuffed on the shelves now, has lost part of its attraction?
I disagree. I’d rather say that the attraction of the job has tumbled during the economic boom, until 2008, when every builder, even an unskillful one, could make a lot more than a seaman. However, when the downturn hit, the seamen-turned-builders scrambled to scour their drawers searching for seamen diplomas, re-appraising them and, ultimately, leaving for sea, which meant a better living. In fact, we’ve seen quite a big surge in the seamen numbers during the crisis. Sure, it has ill-effected the maritime sector as well, but not as much as other sectors. Interestingly, throughout the 2008-2010 crisis there was shortage of maritime officers around the world.
How many Lithuanian seamen work on ships with Lithuanian flags, EU-registry boats and third-country vessels?
As I said, some 2,000 seamen toil in the Lithuanian fleet, as approximately 7,000-8,000 Lithuanian mariners sail under third-country flags. As for the EU number, frankly, I am not aware of the statistics. As a matter of fact, after the EU joining, the Europeans shut the door for our seamen, regarding them to be a too expensive workforce and hired Asian, or Russian and Ukrainian seamen instead.
Do you see a “cheaper” workforce in the Lithuanian fleet lately as well?
Maybe this is something that some private ship owners would mull doing, i.e hiring non-Lithuanian citizens, but the LSU is a member of some powerful seamen rights-protecting international organizations that would not allow that. I really do not want to see that happening in our fleet. However, for example, Baltlanta, the major oceanic fishing company of the Baltics, does employ a number of third country seamen, mostly in the capacity of fish processors. However, certain strict EU regulations apply in the case too. Like, for example, the workforce cannot exceed one-third of the total of the ship staff.
Did Lithuania impose certain tax privileges for its seamen working on third-country ships? Aren’t those mariners more vulnerable in terms of social security?
When it comes to them, they have to get social insurance themselves. Neither state nor the company that they work for is responsible for that. Sure, those who work for EU-registry marine companies do not have to bother about social security things as the companies they work for take care of that. Obviously, not all seamen on third-country vessels are conscious and voluntarily pay the social security taxes. But those who realize the importance, sure, do. And, to tell the truth, sometimes those who snub the responsibility might suffer a lot in the future. I’ve seen such cases and heard such stories.
Are you addressing in any way the seamen’s social adaptation issues after the mariner disembarks for good? How difficult is it, from your own experience, to adjust to the “ground life” once you’re off the ship?
These things you’re referring to are really important. However, they aren’t as problematic as some may believe. Although life at sea may seem to be too remote from any activity on land, believe me: there are many fields on the ground where the profession of seaman overlaps with others. It shouldn’t be surprising as Lithuania is a sea state with its maritime infrastructure. Where I really see an issue is all those Russian-speaking seafarers, Lithuanian citizens, who settle in Lithuania after they are done with the seafaring. They still often deal with the language barrier-related issues when looking for a job on land. However, their children are fluent already both in Lithuanian and English.
If today a burden-stricken seaman walks into your office, would you be able to help him out financially?
No, I wouldn’t. The Union is not a social service institution. But the LSU does help out a lot when it comes to labor disputes, emergency cases, etc. Just in very rare cases, when a seaman is very sick or something, we may give him some money if we have some in the account. Only the former Soviet Mariner Unions were able to give out brand new cars and apartments for retired seamen, or the needy seamen.
How does the LSU make ends meet?
We live off LSU membership fees.
Speaking of lobbying, is there anybody in the Parliament you can call up now and ask for legislative help?
It’s a good question. Yes, indeed, the LSU has such people there. Sure, it doesn’t work the way you say - the meetings have to be scheduled in advance. We’d been engaged in very active lobbying before the 2011 parliamentary elections, grilling the would-be MPs on a range of maritime issues. We have already met some of them after they clinched the seats to discuss our matters. I really believe that we can find solutions in any matter with the current political forces in power. Alas, I couldn’t say that of the former ruling coalition of the Conservatives and Liberals. The latter two would often turn a blind eye and deaf ear to our needs and pass decisions without hearing us out. Therefore, we have a lot of baloney in the legislative acts they’ve passed. Fortunately, the government fixes them now.
How did you end up at the helm of the Lithuanian Seamen Union? Do you miss the sea?
I’ve been the Union’s chairman, with some time off, since 1995. I finished a seamen school in the mid-60s, but had to leave the sea due to some persisting health issues. However, ironically, I’ve not left the waters. I worked on tug boats for quite some time before was picked to lead the Union.