2018-06-06 —

In 2015, as a condition of the $100 billion European Union bailout that followed the 2008 financial crisis, the Greek government agreed to privatize a number of state-held assets including the Piraeus Port Authority, which manages the port's container and passenger terminals. The Greek state sold a majority stake for $330 million to COSCO. For the Chinese company, the purchase had a clear financial logic. About 80 percent of China's imports and exports to and from Europe are transported by sea, and by avoiding the need to sail to busy Northern European ports like Rotterdam or Hamburg, COSCO could offload containers in Piraeus, reducing the time it takes cargo to get to Europe by nearly a week. Plus, by owning the port authority, COSCO could help determine how much its own ships would have to pay itself in port fees.

As part of the deal, COSCO pledged to participate in financing $410 million worth of investment in the port, including a repair of port equipment and the dredging of Piraeus's central port. Supporters of privatization argue these improvements signal a coming maritime renaissance at Piraeus--already the busiest port in the eastern Mediterranean. Nektarios Demenopolous, the deputy manager for investor relations at Piraeus Port Authority, told me, "There are 300 million euros [$350 million] of investment to come in the next five years, followed by another 50 million. Privatization has made the port much more dynamic and will reboot activities at the port like ship repair that have been in recession. It will be remembered as a success story."

But a "success story" for whom? The dockworkers of Piraeus say they and their families have seen little of the alleged gains brought by COSCO. As Piraeus Port Authority boasts of widening profit margins and increasing maritime traffic, wages for dockworkers haven't budged since they were slashed from 1500 euros ($1,750) per month to 600 euros after the financial crisis. Beyond that, COSCO now hires few dockworkers as full-time employees, and tends to enlist unskilled laborers for complex container unloading. COSCO also primarily remunerates people on an ad hoc basis as subcontractors, leaving dockworkers and their families entirely dependent on the ebb and flow of traffic into Piraeus. It also means their traditional retirement benefits have disappeared.

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