Chinese clothing imports in a tug of war with Greek store owners crying ‘unfair’ competition

A friend visiting from Milan boasted of being able to find woollen pullovers there for as little as 6 euros, hard to believe for Greek shoppers used to paying 30-40 euros even for non-brand names. However, a stroll down Pireos Street, along Agisilaou and the surrounding streets a little later proved to be an eye-opener. Chinese stores are selling clothing at prices reminiscent of the pre-euro age, while Greek merchants are talking about a black market of unbridled proportions. The war of the wardrobe is on. The fact is that in stores with red lanterns hanging outside, price tags are from 5 to 15 euros. Wherever business is good, the Chinese are there, and are doing very, very well. «Why shouldn’t I buy pajamas here?» asks Anna, a pensioner shopping in Koumoundourou Street. «Anywhere else, 8 euros won’t even buy buttons. The market has gone crazy and if it hadn’t been for the Chinese, I would have stopped buying new clothes and made over my old ones.» Business is brisk in the stores in Agisilaou Street. For 20 euros, I buy a very nice roll-neck sweater, a pair of sweatpants and a pair of children’s pajamas. Beside me, a groups of girl students are buying underwear for 1 euro a piece. «They’re worth it, even if they don’t last long. Even on expensive underwear, the elastic doesn’t last,» said Christina. «Whether I wash them by hand or in the washing machine, nothing happens to them. I swear by Chinese goods, firstly because they are cheap and secondly because I think they can compete with Greek products in quality,» said Cleo, who works and lives in Peristeri and has come down to Omonia Square for a tour of the Chinese stores. Chinese stores are not only to be found in the city center. According to a recent survey by the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, of the 212 Chinese-owned businesses in Athens, 98 are in the suburbs, most of them on busy main streets. As an example, within just a few months, two opened on Aghiou Dimitriou Avenue in Brahami, eastern Athens, with a full range of menswear, women’s and children’s clothing that is selling like hot cakes. No matter that communication between staff and customers is limited to five to 10 basic words, since most Chinese merchants speak very little or no Greek. They let their prices speak for them. «I used to be ashamed to say I bought Chinese clothes, but slowly I realized I wasn’t the only one,» said Eleni, who bought many of her Christmas presents here. Greek merchants are struggling to find ways to confront the phenomenon that is daily assuming greater dimensions; meanwhile, they allege serious illegalities are being committed. Locals’ objections «The first stores were opened by Chinese who came here from Italy as EU citizens and brought other compatriots with them to work as staff. The latter got green cards and opened their own stores, setting off a chain reaction throughout Greece,» said Sotiris Antoniou, treasurer of the Athens Traders Association. Greek merchants’ main objections concern the way many of these stores operate. There have been cases where it was shown that legal working hours are not adhered to, and many products were either imported from abroad or transported within Greece using forged invoices. As for the staff, the Greek storeowners claim that the Chinese might have five employees, for example, but pay social security for just the one. Greek merchants want a unified control mechanism to be set up to cover the entire market. «Under the existing regulations, every inspection has to be made by a committee of six people, one from each organization involved, that is the fraud squad SDOE, the police, the Development Ministry, the municipality and so on, a system that is not functional,» explained Antoniou. «We don’t want the Chinese to go. If they trade on equal terms with Greeks, then we have no problem,» he added. According to Demetrios Charisis, president of the Athens Chamber of Small and Medium-sized Industries, there are major vested interests involved in these stores. «Particularly since January 1 when the quotas on Chinese-origin textile products were abolished, we have all been aware that something was in the air. We don’t want to wipe them out, but we have to deal with the problem,» he said. In fact, Greek stores are facing tough competition. «Even if we lower our prices, it won’t be easy to survive,» said Antoniou. «A Greek store owner might import anoraks from Germany and sell them at 120-150 euros with a profit margin of 100-120 percent, but if he decides to sell Chinese clothes which cost him 15 euros and sells at 30, how many more can he sell? The profit margin doesn’t change and bills still have to be paid. The store owner will be forced to close down.» Chinese as European Su Wei Chun, who has a wholesale outlet on Pireos Street, draws attention to another factor. «Many Greeks buy clothes from us, change the labels and sell them as European, at European prices. Just take a walk down Stadiou Street and you’ll see what I mean,» he said. Meanwhile, widespread media coverage in recent weeks that has included claims that the Chinese Embassy is funding the stores has embarrassed the Chinese community. «This slander has upset us,» said Shi Min, consultant to the Chinese Embassy in Athens. «Like every state, Greece has its laws. Who are we to violate them and put ourselves above them? Since China, as other Asian countries, has cheap labor, naturally it will develop its trade and sell at competitive prices. So, because production, which usually comes from family-owned factories, is large, Chinese go abroad to promote their products.» Clothes for the poor The Chinese avoid the press because they don’t speak much Greek and because they are afraid of being misrepresented. When they do speak to journalists, however, they state categorically that their community abides by the law in its business activities. «We came to Omonia and brought life back to a district that after dark was one of the worst in the city. We put clothes on the backs of people who do not have much money and we keep trying to improve the quality of our products,» said Anna, Jenny and Su Lia, members of the Panhellenic Chinese Cultural and Commercial Union. «There are so few of us that we would never have the nerve to live and work here illegally. First of all, to open up a store, you need a number of documents, from the Chamber of Commerce, the taxation bureau, IKA… illegality has no place. We are a traditionally courageous and hardworking people and we stick together. Those who don’t know us have a hard time understanding that we support each other and work hard to stand on our feet.»

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