"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 â¿¿ "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.

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