Perama: unemployment and extremism in Athens’ harbour
Athens, January 2015.
The bus that took the workers to the shipyards has lain, abandoned, for years among the planks of the scaffolding once trodden by over ve thousand shipyard workers. Until the 90s, most of them were from Perama, a small harbour city just a few kilometres from Piraeus, the port of Athens. The announcement from Alexis Tsipras, the newly elected Greek prime minister, of the halt on sale of the majority share of Piraeus to COSCO, a Chinese logistics group, could be a turning point for the city in which unemployment is now over 50%. The transfer of assets such as the port and national electrical company were arranged by the Troika as a guarantee for the aid received by Greece. Today, the new government’s decision to take a step back could return state-owned construction work to the heart of Hellenic politics.
In the gigantic cement-covered space where ships were once built, today the ex-workers grill sh caught in the old drainage basin. They discuss the recent elections that have lled Greece with new-found hope. They wonder if they will return work to Perama too. Nearby, small groups of Egyptian seasonal shermen unload the haul of the day from their nets. On the walls and in the streets running among the people’s barracks are swastikas and Greek frets, symbols of the neo-Nazi-inspired movement Golden Dawn, a patent manifestation of the shocking growth of intolerance and xenophobia in the city.
The Greek shipyard tradition started just a few kilometres away from here with the foundation of Hellenic Shipyard & Co in Skaramagas. In the 70s, around eight thousand workers were employed in the construction of warships for the Greek navy in the shipyards facing the Salamina strait, precisely where, two thousand ve hundred years ago, the Athenian ships overwhelmed the eet of Xerxes, thus defeating Persia. With the progressive reduction of the Skaramagas shipyards, Perama became an important centre for naval repairs and its port became home to dozens of businesses which took on all of the workers leaving Hellenic Shipyard & Co. Soon, the small shipping village became one of the most proli c business centres of the Greek capital and the presence of same many workers promoted the development of a generation of ardent trade unionists which elected the Greek communist party to power in the city for many years. Destroyed by the crisis and
privatisation, today, the port of Perama employs around a hundred and fty people. The shops on the port promenade have closed down and each morning the ex-workers queue up at the shipyards in the hope that, thanks to some new commission, one of the surviving of ces will need a few extra pairs of hands.
Turkish competition, too, contributed to the downfall of Greek shipbuilding, by driving prices down through cheaper labour. However, the shipyards on the other side of the Aegean Sea also suffer due to the unbeatable prices of the Chinese yards and are facing the same fate. Ten years ago, Yannis Kalogeridis, Technical Manager of Delta Shipyard, one of the remaining active companies in Perama today, managed the repair of the Golden Wish, over 2,000 tons of steel replaced over 120 days, with 500 workers assigned to that project alone. The ship was bought for ten million before being repaired and restored, used for four years and then re-sold for over seventy million. The greatest venture of his career even has a dedicated video on YouTube, which has to be seen to be believed. A far cry from those glory days, today no more than fteen people work at the Delta Shipyard and its commissions are for small repairs, generally shing boats or ferries for the lines connecting the capital and the islands.
However, just a stone’s throw away at Mazonakis Ship Repair, naval architect and of ce manager Spiridionis is overseeing the elongation of the rear jetty of a 40m yacht by adding on a 5m segment able to house an in atable raft or a small motorboat. His of ce employs no more than a dozen workers. He is, however, grateful for the fact that the crisis has not sunk the Greek billionaires, since Mazonakis is specialised in the repairs of boats that perhaps twenty people in the whole country can afford.
A few metres further still and we see the Navsi warehouses, their doors open but the lights off, since no commissions have come in since the summer. Before this very warehouse is the ex-workers’ table, many of them retired, others simply unemployed. On the table, we nd crab, sh, wine and raki. As young men, all were employed by Hellenic Shipyard & Co
“We all worked there. There’s not a man in Perama or Skaramagas who didn’t,” says Vangelis, 62, who has the honour of overseeing the grill, “and here we all are today, with nothing to do. They’ve cut our pensions
in half, so we just come here, sh, and try not to think about it.” The recent elections and victory of Syriza, a left-wing coalition, have re-ignited a ame of hope across the country, but in Perama it does not seem to have restored much hope. The workers do not believe that the industries will start up again and think that, in the end, Tsipras will have to give in when it comes to the fate of Piraeus and thus Perama.
The unemployment in the area and its deterioration have led to a fall in property prices, followed by the settlement on Egyptian and Pakistani families there. This very phenomenon has encouraged the uprising of the Nazi-inspired movement Golden Dawn. The militant party represented by the symbol of the Greek fret, similar to a Swastika in appearance, has gained popularity among the workers, directly taking votes from the communist party. In Perama alone, a number of violent attacks on communist militants have been recorded. On the 12th of December 2012, over forty Golden Dawn supporters armed with helmets and sticks attacked a group of legal Egyptian sherman returning from shing. Two of them ended up in a coma while many more could not work for months. Following political murders like that of rapper Pavlov Fissas, Golden Dawn’s entire leadership was jailed, including its Perama leader, Anastasios Pantakis.
At their head of ces, the seat at the head of the table is left empty, awaiting the leader’s return home and the calendar is frozen at the date of his arrest. Periklis Moulinakis, a Golden Dawn militant from the Perama of ces af rms that “the decline of Perama is primarily the fault of the communists and the trade unionists, who have encouraged the workers to demand too-high salaries and work too few hours, leading the shipyards to bankruptcy.” The Golden Dawn militants deny any relationship with the Nazi heritage, as well as rejecting accusations of racism and xenophobia. They uphold the view that their leader’s involvement in attacks on immigrants is a misrepresentation of the truth. The Golden Dawn militants also declare themselves happy that Tsipras has won the election. “We want all of Greece to understand that they are incompetent,” continues Moulinakis. “Everybody will see that they are not t to govern, that they will be forced to accept dictates from Berlin and in a few months they will be supported by none. That’s where we come in. All we have to do is wait.”
The excellent results achieved by Golden Dawn in the city, at over 10%, are nonetheless totally overshadowed by the clear victory of Syriza. If Alex Tsipras’ strategy to suspend privatisation works to restore activity at the port of Piraeus, thus restoring employment and well-being to Perama, the Salamina strait could once again represent the heart of Greek history and its economy. Should these plans not succeed, the gloomiest of predictions from those who tap into desperation for political success could emerge as terribly accurate.
Words by Pietro Guastamacchia.