Government walks tightrope between Cosco and workers

The government has invited striking dockworkers to talks with China’s Cosco over the management of two terminals at Piraeus Port (OLP) in a bid to end 12 days of protest action that has blocked more than 200,000 tons of goods from reaching key industries. Economy, Competitiveness and Merchant Marine Minister Louka Katseli said yesterday the government has agreed to start talks between state-controlled OLP and SEP, Cosco’s subsidiary, «on a new basis.» «We are in continuous talks with all parties… with the addition of workers,» said Katseli. Cosco had been awarded the management of the two cargo terminals in an agreement that entered force on October 1 but PASOK had promised workers during its recent election campaign that it would reassess the contract signed by the previous conservative government. OLP’s 1,500 employees, who are demanding the annulment of the contract, argue that Cosco plans to reduce the number of jobs by two-thirds as of June next year. OLP workers are expected to decide today whether they will go back to work as 215,000 tons of goods, including food and medical supplies, remain stranded at the port. Shares in OLP, which are traded on the Athens bourse, jumped 8.90 percent yesterday to 15.54 euros on speculation the strike might be ending soon. The broader market advanced 2.82 percent. Labor opposition to the Cosco concession has resulted in strikes on and off for more than a year, as well as a refusal to work overtime and weekends until April this year. The strike action, coupled with the global economic crisis, meant Piraeus had the biggest drop in container traffic among major ports worldwide and fell out of the top 100 busiest ports, according to Lloyd’s List. The Hellenic Retail Business Association (SELPE), which represents retailers employing some 40,000 workers, said the strike has created an «explosive» situation. «Particularly when there are 6,000 containers with products waiting to be cleared by customs, according to OLP, while at the same time ships are taking alternative routes and heading to other European ports,» SELPE said in a statement.