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Former blue-collar workers in Greek town turn to soup kitchens, trash as unemployment rises

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    In this Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 photo Constantinos Sapkas, 39, searches a recycle bin for metal in the depressed Perama area, on the fringes of Athens' port of Piraeus. Sapkas lost his last job in March 2010, and now spends his nights rummaging through Perama’s rubbish bins for metal to sell for scrap. That earns him up to two euros a day. Perama’s unemployment is among the worst in Greece, where the nationwide figure for November was 28 percent, according to the statistical authority on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)The Associated Press

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    In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 photo unemployed people receive meals from social worker Athanasia Siampou, center, at Perama municipality, on the fringes of Athens' port of Piraeus. Perama’s unemployment is among the worst in Greece, where the nationwide figure for November was 28 percent, according to the statistical authority on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)The Associated Press

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    In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 photo a worker comes out from a dry dock's access hole at a shipyard in the depressed Perama area, on the fringes of Athens' port of Piraeus. For Perama, the ships have sailed. Until recently, this working class town at Athens’ western tip hosted some of the busiest shipyards in Greece, a maritime country with one of the world’s biggest shipping industries. Perama’s unemployment is among the worst in Greece, where the nationwide figure for November was 28 percent, according to the statistical authority on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)The Associated Press

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    In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 photo the sun rises as a crane operator arrives for work at a shipyard in the depressed Perama area, on the fringes of Athens' port of Piraeus. For Perama, the ships have sailed. Until recently, this working class town at Athens’ western tip hosted some of the busiest shipyards in Greece, a maritime country with one of the world’s biggest shipping industries. Perama’s unemployment is among the worst in Greece, where the nationwide figure for November was 28 percent, according to the statistical authority on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)The Associated Press

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    In this Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 photo Liana Maili pediatrician of Medecins du Monde, Doctors of the World, checks the weight of seven-month old Panagiota in the depressed Perama area, on the fringes of Athens' port of Piraeus. About 3,500 people use the free clinic set up in Perama in 2010. Most lost access to state healthcare along with their jobs, or can’t even afford their 25 percent contribution to state-subsidized medicine costs. Perama’s unemployment is among the worst in Greece, where the nationwide figure for November was 28 percent, according to the statistical authority on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)The Associated Press

For Perama, the ships have sailed.

This working class town at Athens' western tip once hosted some of the busiest shipyards in Greece, a maritime country with one of the world's biggest shipping industries.

Wages were good and jobs plentiful. Apartment blocks were built quickly along a steep, sea-facing hill from whose heights 2,500 years ago a Persian king watched the destruction of his invading fleet off Salamis island, in one of history's most famous naval battles.

But over the past four years, all that changed as the country went through an economic freefall comparable with the Great Depression of the 1930s. This town of 30,000 people exhibits some of its worst symptoms.

Some 70 percent of the local shipping industry has shut down. Unemployment is 45 percent, far above the nationwide rate of 28 percent, itself a record figure, according to the latest figures released Thursday. About 95 percent of former shipyard workers are jobless.

Now, most say, only government aid can save the town.

"The shipyards are dead, nothing's happening there," Mayor Pantelis Zoumboulis told the AP. "Unfortunately, we linked our lives with the shipyards. So when they went down, our town lost its life."

Zoumboulis was himself employed in the yards during the 1970s, when up to 5,000 people worked daily on the two-mile strip between the mountain and the sea, he said. "Now, there are 20 or 30."

Inside the dock area, a bronze statue of a worker brandishing his spanner stands next to a union banner deploring the lack of jobs. Towering cranes stand idle, fenced round to prevent injuries from falling parts, and once-busy canteens have closed.

Greece's poorly managed finances imploded in 2010 after the country admitted to misreporting debt figures and could no longer borrow from international markets. It has since survived on rescue loans, granted on condition of deep spending cuts and reforms that have caused years of recession.

Perama's troubles started about a year earlier when the global economic downturn hit Greek shipping firms. While ship owners — who enjoy generous tax breaks — recovered quite fast, they took their custom to Turkey and China, which have lower costs and strong state support. Among the few businesses still alive are those that carry out repairs on pleasure craft for international clients.

Constantinos Sapkas, 39, once made 4,000 euros ($5,500) a month as a merchant seaman. He lost his job in March 2010, and now spends his nights rummaging through Perama's rubbish for scrap metal.

That earns him up to two euros a day.

"Eventually my money ran out and I had to turn to the streets, because I don't like thieving, I don't like the idea of prison," said Sapkas, a giant of a man who eats at a church soup kitchen every day. "If I could now I would work in a bakery, or dig with my bare hands ... But the jobs are not there."

Municipal social services and charities provide soup kitchens and free services from healthcare and school tutoring to haircuts.

Medecins du Monde social worker Eleni Chronopoulou said about 3,500 people use the free clinic set up there in 2010. Most have no state healthcare.

Androniki Karamanli, a mother of two whose husband has been unemployed since 2010, has a five-month contract to work at a soup kitchen — her first job in 18 months. But the former shop assistant still hasn't received any pay.

"When we came to live here in 2006, things were so different," she said.

Nikos Palaioudis, who owns Perama's Nafsi Shipyards, the country's fourth-largest, said the government, businesses and unions were all to blame for keeping the industry uncompetitive. Greek labor costs are about 30 euros an hour, compared with 5 euros in neighboring Turkey.

"In our own way, we chased shipowners away," he said.

Palaioudis appealed for government support "even for the first and last time," in the form of incentives and foregoing privatization of the Perama docks. He said the nearby Skaramangas yards, which had been feeding business to Perama until it was shut, should be reopened with government aid.

Union official Akis Antoniou, who travelled as far as China last year to find occasional work, said "political will" is needed.

"The workers are skilled, the tools are here," he said. "The paradox is that we live in a country that has a huge demand for ships. We're not in Switzerland that has no sea."

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Rafael Kominis and Thanassis Stavrakis contributed.