Athens, July 2019: One of my first meetings as minister for Development and Investments was with Panos Xenokostas, the owner of Onex Shipyards. He informed me that the streamlining of the Neorio Shipyards on Syros was at risk – and that this would affect 700 jobs. We agreed on the way forward and shook hands on it. One hour later I met with representatives of the union of the shipyard’s workers for the fist time. They had traveled from the island to talk me into helping the completion of the streamlining plan. Before they could even start talking, I said: “Don’t waste your time. I am convinced that it needs to be done and we have agreed with Mr Xenokostas on the next steps.”
It was a tremendous moment: They cried with childlike sobs. Their tears have been on my mind throughout this four-month period, up to the disbursement of the money to pay the workers fives years’ worth of wages and the restart of operations at the shipyard.
Syros, December 2019: We come to last Wednesday and the wonderful opening ceremony of the Neorio Shipyards, an event attended by US Ambassador in Athens Geoffrey Pyatt, Labor and Social Security Minister Yiannis Vroutsis, deputy ministers of Development and Investments Nikos Papathanassis and Sports Lefteris Avgenakis, lawmakers for the Cyclades, the head of the Regional Authority of the Southern Aegean, the mayor of Syros and Syros Bishop Dorotheos.
It may have been the most moving moment in the five months that I have been at the Development and Investments Ministry. Not only because a traditional Greek industry is back in operation after the arduous efforts of two governments in a rare example of government continuity, but also because it is proof that the ship repair industry is able to function competitively once more.
But there is one more thing that I would not have believed possible were I not there to see it. It is something that exceeded all my expectations and is, possibly, a sign that the new Greece we all dream of may be here already, unbeknown to us. It is most optimistic message for the future.
It was hearing Antonis Hatzantonis, the head of the Neorio workers’ union, thanking everyone who contributed to reopening the shipyard and safeguarding the jobs of 700 people, paying several years’ worth of wages and restoring dignity to their families.
First of all, he thanked their employers, Mr Xenokostas and Onex. A union leader, at a shipyard no less, spoke with gratitude about an employer! As I listened, I thought of my experiences in 2011 as deputy shipping minister when the unions of the ship repair zone could only condemn their employers, complain about working conditions and make ever-increasing demands. On Syros, however, I saw workers who were happy to have a job.
My surprise grew even greater when the union chief thanked the shipyard’s clients, the shipowners who choose to bring their vessels to the Syros unit. I admit that the image of a union chief sincerely thanking shipowners for giving them work made me wonder whether I was dreaming and not living in the real world.
And as I basked in this state of euphoria, stunned at experiencing things I never thought I would in Greece, another thunderbolt struck: topping up all of his thanks, the union chief also thanked the US ambassador and the US for choosing Greece and Syros for their investment. I repeat: the president of a labor union in industry, in a shipyard no less, thanked – to the cheers of 700 workers – their employer, their clients and the ambassador of the United States.
This may well have been the best message to come out of this investment: that the mindset and mentality is starting to change, that we are coming to realize that in order to have jobs we need to have private investments. And that to have private investments, we must have good employers, we must have satisfied clients and we must have good international relations.
The fact that this was acknowledged by a union president illustrates the difference of the new Greece led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. We now live in a mature Greece, where society as a whole understands what we need to do to attract foreign investment, what we need to do to breathe life back into our industry.
As I listened to him I pondered how Greece entered the 1980s as a significant industrial power only to end up a few years ago on the brink of bankruptcy and as a negligible industrial power today. For 30 years we have been demolishing, undoing and leading major industries to bankruptcy. Finally, it is time to reverse this course.
We will be accompanied in this effort by the workers, by the good employers and by the good clients so that we may all – together with the government – fix the country and make it an investment-friendly country that tells everyone interested in putting their money here: “You will not get into a bind, you will not come up against insurmountable obstacles, we are all here to make your life easier, for our prosperity, for your prosperity and for our children to have a future.” Honestly, I believe that the Syros shipyard launch should one day be mentioned in Greek history books as a turning point: a point of change in a mentality that for 30 years put Greece on a course of inactivity and decline.
The time has come to turn the page. I thank the employees at the Syros shipyards.
And that was just the beginning.
Adonis Georgiadis is Minister for Development and Investments.