The cargo volume here is three times the level it was two years ago, before the captain, Fu Cheng Qiu, was put in charge by his employer, Cosco, a global shipping giant owned by the Chinese government.
In a 2010 deal that put 500 million euros ($647 million) into the coffers of Greece’s cash-starved government, Cosco leased half of the port of Piraeus and quickly converted a business that had languished as a Greek state-run enterprise into a hotbed of productivity.
The other half of the port is still run by Greece. And the fact that its business lags behind Cosco’s is emblematic of the entrenched labor rules and relatively high wages — for those lucky enough to still have jobs — that have stifled the country’s economic growth.
… As the Greek government contemplates shedding state-owned assets to help pay down staggering debts, it might be tempting to consider leasing or even selling the rest of the port to China. But if the Cosco example is representative, the trade-offs — mainly a sharp reduction in labor costs and job protection rules — might be ones many Greeks would be loath to accept.
“Unionized labor will push back to keep the protection it has enjoyed,” said Vassilis Antoniades, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group in Greece. But the Cosco investment, he said, “shows that under private management, Greek companies can be globally competitive.”
Besides the $647 million that put half of the port of Piraeus into Chinese hands, the Greek government is receiving more income from taxes as a result of the port’s pickup in business.
Other than a handful of Chinese managers, moreover, Cosco’s operation is providing around 1,000 jobs to Greek workers — compared with the 800 or so who work the dock that is still under Greek management.
On Cosco’s portion of the port, cargo traffic has more than doubled over the last year, to 1.05 million containers. And while profit margins are still razor thin — $6.47 million last year on sales of $94.2 million — that is mainly because the Chinese company is putting a lot of its money back into the port.
Cosco is spending more than $388 million to modernize its dock to handle up to 3.7 million containers in the next year, which would make it one of the world’s 10 largest ports. Beyond that, workers are also laying the foundations for a second Cosco pier.
The Greek-run side of the port, which endured a series of debilitating worker strikes in the three years before Cosco came to town, has been forced by the Chinese competition to seek its own path to modernization. Still, only about a third of its business consists of cargo handling; the rest is made up of more lucrative passenger traffic.
For years, the container terminal was a profitable operation. But Harilaos N. Psaraftis, a professor of maritime transport at the School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering in Athens, said it was inefficient “because worker relations were very cumbersome.”
The salaries of some workers reached $181,000 a year with overtime; Cosco is typically paying less than $23,300. On the Greek side of the port, union rules required that nine people work a gantry crane; Cosco uses a crew of four.
“It was just crazy,” recalled Mr. Psaraftis, who was the chief executive of the port from 1996 to 2002. “I told them, ‘If you keep this up, this thing will be privatized.’ But they didn’t listen.”
… As Greece struggles to overhaul its economy, he said, Cosco represents an opportunity for Greek workers — and the country itself. “Cosco is their future,” he said. “We are here to stay.”
Not anymore. This return of the port to the public sector by the new government is what our friend Dollar Bill yesterday called “a creturn to a sane approach to recovery”.