Once-mighty shipyards fall silent as the Greek crisis wipes out a way of life
Political change spurred in what was once a centre of maritime industry
A shipyard worker works on the hull of a new ship being built in a Perama shipyard near Athens. The shipbuilding town of Perama on the outskirts of Piraeus has suffered immensely during the recent economic slowdown with the local area suffering 90 per cent unemployment. Photogrph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A gantry crane slides along the dockside, easing supplies into the colossal hull of the Celestyal Crystal, a gleaming Maltese-registered cruise liner undergoing repairs. Small figures in navy overalls dart around on deck. A welder kneels over some sheet-metal, sending red sparks flying. The din is of drilling and hammering. In other words, the scene is a throwback to the way things once were in Perama.
Aside from the activity around the Crystal, there’s not much going on in the shipyard. A second vessel, the Sophocles V, is also under repair, but most of the others have been sold for scrap; the vast yard is largely deserted.
Two or three ships is a good week these days, says Yiannis Lykos, a metalworker who has earned his living here for 24 years. “Years ago, thousands of people worked here on the shipyard,” he says, taking a smoking break in the shade. “Now there are only 300 of us.”
Until recently, Perama, a suburb of the port city of Piraeus, was the beating heart of Greece’s proud maritime repair industry. Benefiting from its proximity to the state-owned Hellenic shipyards in Skaramangas, one of the biggest dry docks in the Mediterranean, it served as a vital maintenance stop for ships from all over the world and provided jobs to more than 5,000 locals.
In just seven years, though, with the closure of Skaramangas, a faltering economy and growing international competition, Perama’s industry has collapsed. Since 2008, 95 per cent of its shipyard workers have lost their jobs.
Those who remain have seen their wages fall and their jobs become more precarious than ever. “There are a few hundred working here, but they’re part-time,” says Fotis (44), a naval engineer taking a coffee break with some colleagues from the Sophocles V. “You can’t count on having a job for a year or two.”
Here, the credit controls imposed by the government last week have made a bleak situation worse. Like many workers, Lykos has been told that he will only receive half of his wages this week because the contractor who employs him cannot access enough of his money.
At a smaller yard farther along the coast, Ilias Karamichalos says he hasn’t been paid for the past 10 days because he is normally paid in cash and “the boss can’t take enough money from the bank”. He points to the empty dockside hangar where he and three colleagues are whiling away the afternoon. “There’s nothing,” he says despondently.
Economic and social upheaval has in turn caused Perama’s politics to shift. The town has long been a left-wing bastion, proud of its working-class traditions, but the extreme-right Golden Dawn has begun to make inroads. Politics is never far from people’s minds but this week, says Fotis, it’s the only topic of discussion. What angers him most, he says, is how Greeks are portrayed in the European media. “People in Ireland and Germany think their taxpayers are paying for lazy Greeks. We’re working 10-15 hours a day when we have work to do,” he says, he says firmly. “They think their taxes are going to lazy Greeks and we spend all the money at the beach. It’s bulls**t.”
His colleague Manos (60), a surveyor, resents the assumption that Greeks are anti-European. “I’m not against Europe. I am a European. Europe is a Greek name,” he says. His anger is directed closer to home.
“I have worked for 40 years. I have paid 36 per cent of my salary on taxes. I didn’t hide one cent. My pension should be €2,250, according to what I paid into it. Do you know how much I’m going to get? €1,300. I’m mad at the 300 people we were voting for – all those people who passed through the Greek parliament all these years. I don’t know what they did with my money.”
Fotis voted for Syriza in January’s election but didn’t cast his ballot in Sunday’s referendum as he saw it as a “fake” choice between “bad or worse”. He feels Syriza, despite having “good intentions”, showed inexperience in its dealings with the lenders, but his ire is aimed squarely at European leaders. “I’m afraid that Europe is not looking for a solution . . . They’re going to push us to the limit to tell people: you can’t choose a left-wing government.
“This is my main fear: that we will be an example. ‘Don’t protest, just take what we give you.’”
It’s three o’clock. The men finish their coffees and head back towards the ship. Outside, the sun beats down on the dockside. At the security cabin, a watchman rests his head on his hand. A few yards away, beneath a fluttering Greek flag, stands the imposing bronze statue of a shipyard worker holding a spanner aloft.
At his feet is a plaque engraved with a poem by Manolis Delakovias, a local shipworker who almost burned to death in an accident in 1990. The poem describes the dangers the workers face, their stints without work, the colleagues they mourn. It describes the joy of receiving a daily wage and the hope that never dies.