GENEVA — The world has too many ships, and job prospects are dim for the men who build and sail them.
Giant oil tankers, container ships and freighters lie idle in many major ports for lack of cargoes, while dwindling orders for new vessels have spread shipyard unemployment from Western Europe to the Far East.
This is the gloomy maritime picture painted in two reports published separately by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, and the International Metalworkers' Federation, which groups trade unions in shipbuilding and other industries in 70 countries.
Both documents cited a complex combination of factors to explain the decline of two industries that were still thriving a little over 10 years ago.
World economic recession together with energy-saving measures that followed the boom years of the early 1970s reduced demand for ships to carry oil, coal, ore, grain and other bulk cargoes, they said.
Moreover, technological innovations had enabled industry to produce smaller, lighter goods that were easier to send by air.
The slump in demand for sea transport was accompanied by increased automation and other labor-saving technological advances aboard ships as owners cut running costs and crews in the scramble for the fewer cargoes available.
Deck and engine-room jobs have disappeared as shipboard computers made possible remote control of machinery, cargo and mooring equipment. Electronic surveillance and alarm systems reduced watch-keeping duties to the extent that one man assisted by a lookout could oversee a ship's entire systems from the bridge, the ILO report said.
Japan has more than 150 large oceangoing ships designed to operate with crews of 18, compared with old-generation vessels that needed 30 to 40 officers and ratings. Other countries are testing advanced ships with between 12 and 15 crew members. Experiments are under way to develop technology for a completely unmanned and remote-controlled ship, the ILO said.
The report was prepared for an ILO conference on the shipping industry, held recently in Geneva and attended by nearly 700 representatives of governments, shipowners and seafarers from 77 countries.
It said that after 50 years of consistent growth in seaborne trade, virtually every sector of world shipping was now suffering from unparalleled overcapacity.
The nadir was 1983, when 1,663 ships representing 79.8 million dead weight metric tons--the weight of cargo and fuel a ship can carry--were laid up around the world, the report said.
Although the situation had since improved, an estimated 35.9 million deadweight tons of shipping were still idle at the end of 1986, the ILO said.
In order to keep working, many seafarers had agreed to longer periods of service afloat, shorter shore leaves and lower pay rates.
With few exceptions, shipboard life had improved only marginally in recent years. Many modern vessels, built against strict budgets and cost-saving specifications, still restricted living comforts and good working conditions for crews.
Many seagoing jobs had "migrated" from industrialized states to developing nations, with lower labor costs. In 1985, at least 36,000 South Koreans were serving aboard nearly 2,000 ships under 45 foreign flags. Some 45,000 Filipinos were similarly employed, the ILO said.
In the shipbuilding industry also, the International Metalworkers' Federation report said, declining orders were accompanied by shifts toward low-wage countries and keen undercutting of prices. But with some 720,000 people still working in the industry in the non-communist world, even the cheap-labor states were now feeling the chill of unemployment.
More than half of Western Europe's shipyard workers had lost their jobs in the past 10 years, and a further 45,000 were expected to go by 1989. In Japan, the decline had been 40% since 1975. Even South Korea, the world's second-largest shipbuilder, after Japan, was also laying off workers.
The federation report, discussed at an international meeting last month of shipbuilding trade union officials in Helsinki, foresaw an upturn in demand for ships by 1990.
In the meantime, it said, the industry needs to be reinvigorated by reducing capacity, fair distribution of orders, fair labor practices and scrapping substandard ships.