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Croatia shipyard workers protest, seek government help over late salaries

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ZAGREB (Reuters) – Around a thousand striking workers from Croatia’s largest shipbuilding group Uljanik protested in the capital on Monday, appealing to the government to help secure late salary payments and the long-term future of the business.

The workers, who have been on strike for the last week, arrived in Zagreb on a fleet of about 20 buses and marched through town to the office of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

“Plenki, save us”, said one of the banners carried by the workers, referring to the Prime Minister’s nickname.

Plenkovic is expected to receive the workers’ representatives later in the day.

Croatia’s once prosperous shipbuilding industry has been struggling to survive since the country’s independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. It has gradually lost business to Asian shipbuilders, such as South Korea, missing opportunities to modernise and produce more sophisticated vessels.

Loss-making Uljanik’s problems are also a potential threat to state coffers as the government has extended guarantees worth several hundred million euros for loans to the shipbuilder.

The company controls two docks in the northern Adriatic, in the cities of Pula and Rijeka.

Workers want management to step down and the government to find a way to pay July’s salaries and to help restructure the business to make it viable over the longer-term.

Some 4,500 Uljanik workers who did not come to Zagreb continued with their daily protest marches through the streets of Pula.

The government has said previously that it was trying to find a solution to the worker’s demands.

European Union rules do not allow direct state financial help but last January the European Commission cleared Croatia’s state guarantee for a loan worth 96 million euros (£86.7 million) to help the shipyard stay afloat.

Earlier this year Uljanik chose local firm Kermas Energijaas its strategic partner and submitted a restructuring plan which was forwarded to Brussels for approval, which is still pending.

Privatisation and restructuring of its docks was a key requirement for Croatia’s accession to the EU in 2013 as the government had to stop providing subsidies and prepare its shipyards to survive on the market.

Uljanik was the only dock which did not go through restructuring at the time as its business was seen sound.

Workers control less than 50 percent of the company, with the state also being a minority shareholder. Other owners include several local banks and the country’s top insurer, Croatia Osiguranje.

In the past Croatia spent more than 30 billion kuna (£3.6 billion) to save its four shipyards, some estimates say.

(Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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