Got the message?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Brothers and sisters, fear not. Our troubles may be at an end. We no longer need to live under the yoke of those who seek to demean us, for I have seen the light – a vision of a world where we, the oppressed people, can reclaim our streets, our public transport system, our gas stations, our ports and our post offices. Yes, our post offices.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence I should receive this vital message last week while trying to collect a registered letter sent to a company I formed with a colleague. The post office clerk glanced back and forth between my passport and the official note left by the postman, which states that just a form of ID is needed to pick up the letter, before informing me that the rules were different for companies. She dug out from a dusty folder the decalogue of registered mail and told me that I would normally need a first instance court document from when the company was formed, which details the names of the firm’s legal representatives.

This is the kind of paper you keep locked away after setting up a company and only bring out for really important things, like opening a bank account or drawing up a contract with another company. So, I politely expressed surprise that such a precious document would be needed simply to collect a letter. In its place, I offered our company stamp, which also has the names of the legal representatives and our tax number. Ruffled by my temerity, the woman looked at me with a sardonic smile and said: “You know, I could choose not to get this letter for you.”

In a sense, she was perfectly right. She had the choice of adhering to the rules and sending me home empty-handed or of recognizing the flaws in the system and being a little flexible so I, and others like me, could get served. But, in fact, these were not the actual options I was being presented with. The clerk was actually telling me that the decision of whether to hand over the letter or not lay solely within her personal realm of authority. She was essentially saying: “If you are nice to me” or “If you beg for forgiveness” or “If you make up some sob story” or “If I feel like it” or, even – god forbid – “If you slip some cash across the counter,” “then, I’ll cooperate.”

“Fine, don’t get the letter for me,” I replied. “OK, I won’t. You can try convincing the manager to give it you,” she said, pointing to a man I had noticed earlier sitting at an empty desk, sticking stamps on odd-shaped packages while talking about soccer with a teenage employee. In years gone by, I might have tried my luck with this man, a fine example of why despite already having 12,500 employees, Hellenic Post (ELTA) is being pressured by unionists to hire another 3,000. It was at this point I had my moment of clarity and turned my back on the clerk and her boss. It dawned on me that those of us who for years have been caught up in this warped web, spun by bureaucrats and politicians shorn of any morals or decency, no longer have to put up with this treatment. The tables are turning and, if needed, we can make them turn a little faster.

Illustrations by Manos Symeonakis

An online census of civil servants was completed last week, giving the Greek government the first ever accurate picture of how many people it’s employing. The total was just over 768,000 but that doesn’t include those employed at public companies and in the wider public sector. A separate census will take place for them next month. The figures available so far mean that in a working population of 4.4 million, almost one in five is a civil servant. Proportionally, it’s as high as anywhere in the European Union and almost double the German figures. But the numbers also remind us of something else: that these people — who in some cases do a difficult job under testing circumstances but in too many cases are feckless loafers – are a minority. We, the people who pay their wages and put up with their antics, are the majority.

The public spending cuts and reforms prompted by the economic crisis are an opportunity to recalibrate our relationship with civil servants and people in closed professions or other sectors that have benefited from politically driven preferential treatment. Those who’ve been pampered and fawned over or who possess jobs as a result of political patronage are beginning to feel the pressure that others have to deal with daily. Wage cuts, job insecurity, professional competition and meager pensions are now a reality for them. The urgency of reining in the public sector and liberalizing closed shops is also helping snip away at the umbilical cord between these groups and the political parties – they are no longer useful to one another. Maybe the evaporation of these privileges will concentrate their minds on doing their job properly. Maybe it will force those who carved out cloistered existences for themselves to realize they are part of a wider society.

If they choose instead to cling on, then we – the majority that has suffered from this debased system – can have a go at shaking them loose: When they choose to close down the city center, we can ensure they find us there before them; if they stop our trains, we can get on board and run them ourselves; if they shut our gas stations, we can stop them from getting fuel when they need it; if they block access to our ferries, we can go to their homes and prevent them from leaving for their holidays; if they don’t deliver our letters, we can use couriers or e-mail instead; and if they refuse to do their jobs, we can report them to a government that lately seems very keen to investigate wrongdoing in the public sector.

They may argue that we are being harsh, that they too are victims of a corrupt system. But we have been ill-served by them too long, seen too many of our friends, relatives and colleagues lose jobs unjustly and spent too many nights worrying about our futures to have any sympathy left. Once Greece belonged to them but now it belongs to us. I have seen the light.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 6, 2010.

One response to “Got the message?

  1. Pingback: Hellenic Post « a life in ruins

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