Day and night, the Chinese-run piers of the Piraeus container terminal are a hive of activity. Lorries come and go while forklift trucks zoom around and colossal cranes heave giant containers from ship to shore.
Five years after its arrival in the Mediterranean, China’s global shipping carrier Cosco takes immense pride in the efficiency with which affairs are conducted on these piers. Business activity has tripled since the state-owned conglomerate acquired the port for €500-million, the biggest foreign investment in Greece in modern times.
But any plans by Beijing to extend its commercial reach have been rudely interrupted by the ascent to power of Syriza, the radical leftists upending conventional orthodoxies in Greece.
On its maiden day in office, the new government announced that a privatisation programme launched to trim the country’s staggering €320-billion debt load was, in effect, null and void. Plans to sell off further port assets – repair docks as well as car, passenger and cruise ship terminals that Cosco had been bidding for – have been scrapped.
“It’s a pity,” sighed Tassos Vamvakidis, the terminal’s commercial manager. “Piraeus deserves a better future. Cosco had big plans to invest in dry docks and other infrastructure. A lot of people were very upset. Foreign investors definitely did not see this with a good eye.”
He was right. Within hours of the news filtering back to Beijing, Chinese officials were voicing concern and the local media were blasting Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s new leader. They cried that he was like the mythological figure Phaeton who, when given the reins of the sun chariot for a day, lost control and almost destroyed the Earth.
Subsequent attempts at smoothing ruffled feathers – with assurances that Cosco’s concession would be “respected” – have done little to placate the Chinese.
The activity at the Chinese part of the terminal in Perama is a world away from the slow motion on the other side of the port. There, state employees protected by labour rules and given higher wages – the result of years of unbending trade unionism – have seen work decline precipitously. If China had its way, it would have bought a majority stake in this side of the harbour, snapped up the nation’s state-run railway network and purchased the port of Thessaloniki. No other country, it says, represents a better gateway into Europe than Greece.
Powerful unions have long been blamed for Greece’s lack of competitiveness. For critics, the tempest now blowing off Piraeus’s shores offers a snapshot of the inability of Athens to slay the monster that has obstructed economic growth. Syriza has been widely accused of pandering to unions.
Many believe Cosco’s high-energy regime is what is needed nationwide if Greeks are to emerge from their worst recession on record and break free of the demands of international creditors keeping the country afloat.
But that is not how workers see it in the shipyards out of Cosco’s control.
“We’d have had no rights,” said Vassilis Savvas. “And Greece would have had no rights. We are not going to do what the previous government wanted: sell off our land for nothing.”
From his fibreglass cabin opposite a rickety hut that is the local meeting place for communist unionists, Savvas controls the traffic in and out of the publicly owned shipyards at Perama. Here visitors are greeted not by a fountain – the centrepiece of the Cosco-run port – but by a pack of snarling dogs, ripped flags and buildings daubed with slogans such as “They won’t oppress us.”
Savvas, who has handled security at the port for 36 years, accepted the landscape was bleak. “At the most we get about 10 ships in these days, when before there would be over 80 at any given time,” he said, taking in the scrawl in his handwritten logbook. “Right now most are in for small repairs, propellers, that sort of thing. Anything bigger and they go to Turkey where it’s cheaper.”
A large man with blue-framed spectacles, a nicotine-stained moustache and a round pleasant face, the 54-year-old remained animated until talk turned to Cosco. All his life he had voted for the left. Syriza’s recent victory in elections was, he said, the jolt Greece and Europe needed.
“I haven’t laboured all these years to be hired for hunger wages,” he said. “At Cosco they bring people in on subcontracts, make them work for a pittance and then send them packing. As it is, I can hardly make ends meet on a salary of €940 a month. And I’m lucky. Go into Perama to see the truth, to see for yourself.”
Two roads cut through Perama: Irinis (peace) and Demokratias (democracy). The former, covered with graffiti in praise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, lies at the bottom of the hills around which Perama ascends. The latter, splattered with hammers and sickles, runs close to the shores of the Saronic Gulf.
No place has mirrored Greece’s great economic crisis more than this. More than 70% of people in the suburb are unemployed, the victims of lost jobs at the shipyards; one in three families survive on food hand-outs and nearly all are uninsured.
The wreckage wrought by five years of austerity is everywhere, but is most apparent on Perama’s upper slopes, overlooking the docks, where locals live in hastily built breeze-block dwellings, often without heat or electricity.
“I have seen a lot of things in my life,” said Vangelio Makris (80), poking her head out of her sitting room window. “And I can say, honestly, that politics destroyed us. The love of power, the love of money, destroyed us.”
Down the hill, Rebecca Tzanetea and Amalia Polatou are medical specialists who volunteer at the polyclinic set up in Perama by Doctors of the World. Both drive in from central Athens, a journey from “one world to another”.
At 50, Tzanetea, who has spent several stints working in Africa, has been shocked by what she has seen. “We’re offering relief,” she said, “but we’re not offering a solution. These are people who were never well off. Perama was always poor. But before the crisis they could at least cope. Now they have lost everything.”
At least 60 patients – migrants and Greeks – come to the clinic every day. Some drop by to get hand-me-downs and other donations. But with poverty have come physical illness, anxiety and depression.
“Their needs are enormous,” said Polatou, a child psychologist. “A lot of children are suffering from anxiety. But that they, and their parents, are even able to survive in such horrible conditions says a lot about their love of life.”
Patients would discuss the shipyards. But what has struck the volunteers of late is that they no longer want to talk about them, or anything much that defined their lives before. “Nobody wants to express an opinion. They just want to survive,” said Katerina Kantziki, a midwife who has helped to run the clinic since it opened at the beginning of the crisis in 2010.
That is not the case lower down the hill where black-clad followers of Golden Dawn do nothing but discuss policy when they meet at the party’s local branch.
Barely five years ago the neo-fascist group picked up 83 votes; now it is going strong with polling rates of above 9%, the second-largest party after Syriza in the area. Increasingly, Perama is being seen as a bellwether of what could ensue if Syriza fails.
“If Greeks are disappointed again, there will be only one place for them to turn,” said Alekos Papathanasiou, a longtime Perama resident who makes ends meet driving a taxi. “I hear it all the time,” he smiled.
“Golden Dawn has not gone away. It is waiting to win the hearts of Greeks and there are a lot of people out there who, next time round, would be willing to embrace them.” – © Guardian News and Media 2015