Color Line sails into choppy seas

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The Norwegian cruise-ferry company Color Line has run into some choppy seas over its own efforts to chop crewing costs. The government is offering to ease costly regulations by allowing two of Color Line’s vessels to switch flags to the more liberal Norwegian International Ships (NIS) Registry, but labour unions are complaining that as many as 700 workers on board may lose their jobs.

One of the two Color Line cruise ferries that may be switching flags to cut costs. The Color Magic and Color Fantasy sail daily between Oslo and Kiel in Germany. PHOTO:

Newspaper Aftenposten reported late last week that the union (Sjømanns-forbundet) fears Color Line will revert to “social dumping” if allowed to switch to the NIS flag. Color Line currently flies the ordinary Norwegian flag (NOR) on its two vessels sailing daily between Oslo and Kiel, Germany, and thus must pay relatively high union wages to those working on board in return for some state support and regulatory protection.

The state, however, faces a probe by competition authorities for the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of which Norway is a member. Aftenposten reported that they opened a case against Norway last year in which they challenged the legality of preventing NIS passenger ships from plying routes between Norwegian harbours and others in the Nordic countries.

Faced with the prospect of Color Line moving its entire operation to Denmark and sailing under foreign flag, the government is thus proposing some new NIS regulations that are tailor-made for Color Line’s cruise ferries Color Magic and Color Fantasy. The news rules would allow ferries in international service to switch to NIS if the route between its last Norwegian harbour and first foreign harbour is at least 175 nautical miles and overnight accommodation is offered on board. A current rule against NIS vessels being allowed to run between Nordic countries outside Norway would also be removed, a move that likely would satisfy the EFTA authorities.

Color Line, moreover, would be able to hire non-Norwegian crew at non-union wages, and is likely to replace around 700 of those now working on board. “It’s not just 700 seafarers who’ll be affected, it’s 700 families,” Ronny Øxnes, who represents Color Line workers who are members of Sjømannsforbundet, told newspaper Dagsavisen over the weekend. He has worked for Color Line for 15 years and said that Color Line, which has received state subsidy under the NOR flag, “should recognize its social responsibility.”

Color Line officials have declined comment pending the hearing process on the proposed rules change, but have been free to switch flags for years. Monica Mæland, the government minister in charge of business and trade, disagreed sharply with the union’s complaints, not least that she allegedly doesn’t care about the 700 people who may be replaced under NIS flag.

“That’s simply untrue,” she told Dagsavisen, claiming that the situation could become much worse. Color Line, she noted, could move the company’s entire operations to Denmark, according to a report from a commission appointed to look into why fewer ships were sailing under the NOR flag. The seafarers’ organizations were represented on the commission along with other interests, and a majority proposed allowing a move to NIS, which Mæland claims she merely followed up.

Mæland claims she’s actually saving jobs by proposing the re-flagging to NIS: “The alternative is that 2,500 jobs could be lost (if Color Line moved to Denmark),” Mæland told Aftenposten. She claimed the government had worked “actively” to secure jobs for seafarers, and to halt the “negative trend” of vessels leaving the Norwegian flag. Berglund