The price that Europe will have to pay for being indebted to China

Billions of dollars of Chinese money are boosting various European economies, but some of the deals being struck have a catch. Critics say they are “debt traps,” in which China gets to choose what happens if loans are not paid back.

China insists it is a reliable investment partner, but is also facing accusations of labor exploitation and environmental damage.

It’s one of those CCTV moments where disaster is about to strike. A port worker in the large Greek port of Piraeus, near Athens, can be seen strolling along the quay next to a huge stack of containers.

Suddenly, he looks up and sees one of them plummeting towards him, closely followed by another. The longshoreman runs off and narrowly escapes being crushed by the two huge crates, which instead hit an empty truck hard.

Last year, another worker from Piraeus was not so lucky. Dimitris Dagklis, 45, did not escape and was killed in a crane accident.

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“His death was the result of the intensification of our work and that there were not enough security measures,” said Markos Bekris, president of the port’s longshoremen’s union.

Since Dagklis’s death, unions have gone on strike over downsizing at the port, which is two-thirds owned by China’s state-owned Cosco.

Across Europe, as governments fret over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after the pandemic, Beijing is on the move, expanding its portfolioamanaging European ports and mines, building roads and bridges, investing where others won’t.

But countries have to weigh the rewards and risks of signing deals with China. Many governments are increasingly wary of so-called “debt traps,” in which lenders, such as the Chinese state, can extract economic or political concessions if the country receiving the investment is unable to pay.

There are also claims of workers who say they are exploited by Chinese companies, in terms of wages, conditions and staffing levels.

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We asked Cosco questions about the death of Dimitris Dagklis, staffing levels in Piraeus, and environmental concerns about the port expansion. The company said that he wouldn’t give us an interview and that he couldn’t help more.

Bekris does not solely blame Beijing for contributing to what he says has been an erosion of labor rights. He argues that the post-global financial crisis capitalist system would have allowed any foreign company to come in and maximize profits at the expense of workers.

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