Boom awakens memories of Piraeus’s ancient glory
A traditionally seafaring nation, Greece enjoys a favorable geographical location. Relying on its shipping industry – together with tourism one of the two pillars of its foreign exchange earnings – the country has been playing a vital role in trade and communication between Central Europe and the rest of the world since ancient times.
Piraeus is not only the largest of Greece’s 444 ports, it’s also the biggest container port in the Eastern Mediterranean and one of the top 50 container ports worldwide. Known today as the “southern gate of Europe,” Piraeus is the West’s closest port to the Suez Canal, the entry point for incoming Asian exports to Europe and the exit point for European exports to Asia – a point that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras underlined with apparent pride during his speech at the opening of the Posidonia 2018 shipping expedition on Monday.
Piraeus, the port of Athens since antiquity, remains a major shipbuilding and industrial center in Greece as well as an important commercial port on the Mediterranean coast. From the start of cooperation with the Chinese company Cosco Shipping in 2010 up until 2017, its subsidiary Piraeus Container Terminal’s throughput surged from 680,000 TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit, a measure of container traffic) to 3.75 million TEU, according to Lloyd’s List. With a dramatic rise in the rankings from 98th to 36th place among the world’s top 100 container ports, Piraeus has become the champion of container terminals around the globe in the past decade or so in terms of growth. In addition, the port directly created 1,650 job opportunities, a figure that doubles when indirect jobs are included, according to IOBE, an independent Greek research institute.
Piraeus Container Terminal has delivered outstanding business results despite the domestic economic crisis. For instance, PCT has been recording profits since September 2010, three months after it took over port operations, but its business really began to take off from 2012 onward. In 2012 it topped the throughput growth list of the top 100 container terminals in the world. In 2013 and 2014, its throughput growth remained one of the highest among global ports. In 2015, it ranked among the top 10 European terminals, evidence that PCT’s business model has been recognized by the global terminal industry.
Residents of Perama, the hill that overlooks the terminal, should be the most objective witnesses of Piraeus port’s growth over the years. From their homes, from dawn till dusk, they have had a bird’s-eye view of how successive Cosco investments have changed the port facilitates, and how the huge new Pier III has materialized in an area where shipwrecks used to litter the coast. Due to increasingly brisk business, PCT is brightly lit 24 hours a day. According to a research report by the Greek Foundation for Economic & Industrial Research (IOBE), Piraeus’s improved containership handling efficiency will bring additional long-term revenue of 5.1 billion euros to the Greek economy, and create another 125,000 jobs in total by 2052.
The robust project growth has helped the Hellenic Republic join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which did not include Greece at the beginning. Chinese President Xi Jinping said in Beijing that the Piraeus port was a pivotal project along the Belt and Road, which connects Central and Southern European countries – an argument frequently mentioned by Greek government officials as a measure of their success. The China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line, a railway line that starts from the port of Piraeus, undertakes the historical mission as a new route for trade between China and Europe. After landing in Piraeus, sea cargoes can be transported by rail to Central European countries, including Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in just three to four days. Compared with the traditional transit route, this “Express Line” will cut the whole delivery period by five to 10 days.
Since piers II and III were rented to a Chinese team eight years ago, the company has always attached great importance to employment compliance and frequently carried out spot inspections and checks. Labor departments of Greece’s left-wing and right-wing governments have regularly inspected the employment situation at PCT and its outsourcing terminal operator. In terms of employment compliance, both PCT and Diakinisis Port, a subcontractor, have kept a clean sheet. Speaking about Piraeus, an employee who had previously worked for other ports for more than 10 years said: “The first time I came to Piraeus, I felt the port was very different from other ports. There is more new equipment, new trucks, job opportunities and customers here. Workers want to work here, because the conditions here are much better than at other freight terminals across the Mediterranean. We are enthusiastic about our work and, from what I can tell, we are paid higher daily wages. There is even free lunch here.”
In addition to its own efforts, the success of Piraeus, a port of transshipment in the Mediterranean, is also attributed to intermittent strikes at the surrounding ports, because transshipment of goods, independent of any man’s will, will always choose ports that are reliable, efficient and cheap. Over the past eight years, memories of Piraeus’s ancient dominance have been awakened and it is expected to be the largest container terminal this year or next to compete head-on with Northwestern European ports.
For the few Chinese who left their home country, the port is a job assigned by their parent company. However, for the 1,700 Greek employees, it means a life commitment to their children, wife and parents, and for Greece, a country still in a sovereign debt crisis, the meaning of Piraeus is self-evident.