LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We continue our series now on China's growing global reach. One place where China is making inroads is in Europe, including debt-ridden Greece. It's most important property deal there has been the Greek port of Piraeus. But in this special investigation, NPR's Louisa Lim reports that Chinese influence is changing more than the financial landscape in Greece.

LOUISA LIM: I'm in the Greek port of Piraeus, which is Greece's biggest port, and it's close to the capital, Athens. Now, this port is significant because it's actually run and operated by a Chinese company.

The Chinese company Cosco has taken out a 35-year lease on this Greek port, worth about $5 billion. It's probably China's largest investment in Europe to date.

Mr. JOHN MAKRYDIMITRIS (Dock Worker, Piraeus Port Authority): There is Greece, and there is China.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: John Makrydimitris, nicknamed J-Mak, works for the Piraeus Port Authority. As he says, there's China, he's pointing across the dividing line. Since June last year, that's effectively been the border between the Chinese container terminal and the smaller Greek pier next door. J-Mak says China needs this terminal for strategic reasons, as a foothold into Europe and beyond for Chinese goods and influence.

Mr. MAKRYDIMITRIS: (Through translator) It's very important for the Chinese to enter through Piraeus to the eastern European and Black Sea markets, which are really booming right now.

(Soundbite of vehicle beeping)

LIM: Straddle carriers line up to transport containers. When it comes to labor conditions, it certainly seems like another country on the Chinese side of the line.

Cosco, a state-run Chinese company, doesn't allow unions or collective bargaining among its 500-plus Greek workers. Until now, no Cosco workers have spoken out. But I met a former Cosco worker who asked that his name not be used. He says he regularly worked eight hours a day with no meal breaks and no toilet breaks.

Unidentified Man: I think their actions are breaking the law. Because the rights to have something to eat around 12 o'clock, to have our breaks and not work like a dog straight away from morning till in the afternoon.

LIM: He says workers were told by supervisors to urinate into the sea, rather than take toilet breaks. The worker says he was paid $850 a month - about $70 a shift, half the salary at the neighboring Greek-operated pier, with no extra money for working night shifts or weekends. There was no set schedule. He was kept on 24-hour call for nine months.

His wife says describes the psychological toll.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) In the end, it was like a nervous breakdown. All day, he was just waiting to see whether they would call. He didn't know if he had time to eat or to sleep. Sometimes they would call in the night to tell him to go to work. It was like torture.

LIM: NPR has gained access to Greek government documents which back this up. Last August, the local Department of Labor Inspection found one worker's schedule had changed 14 times in one month. During two visits last year, the agency noted four separate labor violations at Cosco's pier.

On both occasions, they found dockers working on their rest days, and they fined Cosco $4,000.

The unions say there have been two accidents in one year due to a lack of training. The worker I met described the situation as chaotic.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) It's a complete mess. There's no training for specialized jobs. This is what happens in a third-world country.

LIM: He showed me his contract, signed by a subcontractor, not by Cosco. It says no money should be paid for overtime, unless there was a prior written agreement with the company. When this worker demanded his overtime pay, he was sacked.

Cosco turned down repeated requests for an interview, both in Greece and in Beijing.

Mr. WEI JIAFU (Chairman, Cosco): Well, good afternoon, everyone...

LIM: But in an appearance at the World Economic Forum last year, Cosco chairman Wei Jiafu insisted that delivering benefits to his workers was his top priority in Greece. He also boasted about the fact that none of his Greek workers had ever been on strike.

Mr. JIAFU: (Through translator) While going global, we are also transferring our culture to the rest of the world.

LIM: So, I'm standing next to a port installation, which has graffiti on the walls saying Chinese go home. And that's just a small sign of the intense opposition there's been to a Chinese presence here, especially from the dockers' union.

Mr. NICK GEORGIOU (President, Dockworkers Union): (Through translator) Companies not run by the Chinese are being influenced by what the Chinese are doing in reducing labor costs and workers' rights.

LIM: Nick Georgiou is the president of the Dockworkers Union. He uses the word blackmail to describe the way that Cosco has behaved.

Mr. GEORGIOU: (Through translator) What we see is that the Piraeus Port Authority is stopped from functioning properly because of obstacles that Cosco puts in its way.

LIM: Fighting the financial crisis, Cosco has struck a deal with the port authority, exempting it from certain fees, potentially saving it $4 million a year. It's delaying the completion of a new pier by five years. Cosco is also limiting any competition by preventing the Port Authority from signing a deal with another major shipping company, MSC, until next June.

When I asked the chairman of the Piraeus Port Authority, Yiorgos Anomeritis, what's in it for Greece, his answer is clear: money.

Mr. YIORGOS ANOMERITIS (Chairman, Piraeus Port Authority): (Through translator) The Port Authority is being paid for the pier that it has ceded to Cosco. That by itself is some kind of gain for Piraeus.

LIM: I've now come to the Greek parliament. I'm looking down into the chamber of parliament, where a vote is now taking place. And I've come to find an MP from Piraeus whose name is Theodore Dritsas from the Syriza party. And he's so concerned about what's happening with Cosco that he's actually raised the issue in parliament.

Mr. THEODORE DRITSAS (MP, Parliament): (Through translator) The main problem is that Greece is no longer a sovereign state, in economic terms.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: While street musicians play for pennies in Athens, Greek politicians face a race against time to solve the country's debt crisis. They vowed to sell $70 billion of assets, including all holdings in the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. This could potentially provide another opportunity for China.

State Minister Haris Pamboukis recently told NPR the cooperation with Cosco was a model to be followed. When I brought up the labor violations of the Cosco pier, he denied all knowledge.

Mr. HARIS PAMBOUKIS (State Minister): The fact there is, the only law that's applicable is the Greek law, and we're not going to import any kind of practices - Chinese, Martian or elsewhere - who are not conforming to our legislation. We are in a country of the rule of law, and that's it.

LIM: But it may be too late. According to the Cosco worker's account - and the Greek government's own investigations - Cosco's already violated labor regulations.

The way China undercuts competitors has been called the China price. That's now hit Europe's docks, and European rule of law appears to be at stake.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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