Around 7 am at the Port of Piraeus near Athens, deckhands dressed in white began to unmoor the cruise liners and yachts filled with thousands of sleepy travelers ready to cross the Aegean Sea. But as the tourist trade picked up in the passenger and cruise terminals, some of the hundreds of dockworkers in the port’s northern cargo terminals were just ending their shift. All through the night, fleets of ships with colossal logos—MAERSK LINE or MSC SHIPPING—slice through the wine-dark waters of the Saronic Gulf toward Piraeus, with loading gangs and cranes always ready to offload their mass-produced cargo.
Being a longshoreman can be difficult at any time, but working when it’s still dark is especially demanding, explained Nikos Kleonakos, a 46-year-old who has been moving containers on and off of cargo ships for over a decade: “At Piraeus, the better shift is the morning shift, as there is light and you can see everything. The tops of the cargo containers are often quite slippery from the sea salt, and the light helps when you unscrew the rusty twist-locks that bind the containers together.”
The 40-foot straddle-carrier cranes that help Kleonakos and others move shipping containers are barely 10 years old, but Piraeus’s development stretches back to at least the 5th century BC, when the Athenians fortified the port after fending off Persian forces under the leadership of Xerxes.
These days no one in Greece is worried about an invading army, but a new Asian power is trying to use Piraeus as its entryway into Europe: COSCO Shipping, a Chinese state-owned enterprise and the world’s largest shipping company. In 2016, COSCO took over the management of Piraeus, which it calls the “dragon head” of its European operations. To live up to its motto—“Bridging the East with West”—the company relies on the port as a crucial node in what’s perhaps the world’s most sophisticated supply chain.
Though the Greek government and Piraeus Port Authority say they are excited about the quadrupled increase in cargo volume since 2010, Piraeus workers told me COSCO’s push for cheap, subcontracted labor is a threat to their livelihoods—which generations of workers fought to obtain. More generally, they said the ongoing privatization of publicly owned companies in Greece is prioritizing the rich over the poor. “Since privatization, people at the docks feel that our livelihoods and basic labor rights are under threat.… We’re dealing with COSCO and the private sector, and our welfare simply isn’t as important as it was to the government,” said Thanos Khanatios, a 53-year-old dockworker from Piraeus who has been working at the port over the past 30 years.
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.