Tag Archives: Greece unemployment

Greece, land of pain and joy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There are rare moments when a thread of togetherness winds its way through a country to lift its everyday burdens. Sometimes, these moments are born from political, sporting or other types of victories. But victories tend to bring out the worst as well as the best in people. It’s usually moments of grief or sadness that stoke the purest of emotions, creating a fleeting sense of community before it’s sucked into the morass of daily stresses and strains.

Greece experienced such a moment last Sunday when the death of singer-songwriter and musician Nikos Papazoglou was announced. He was an unassuming man who made rare public appearances and dodged the media spotlight. The reaction to his death was a reflection of people’s love for his pure and passionate music, but it was also a sign of respect for Papazoglou the human being: as an artist he shunned commercialism and stayed true to his values and as a man he remained humble and generous despite his fame.

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Reaching the age of consensus

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was ironic that as the Greek government supposedly went in search of consensus last week, the streets of Athens should look just like the streets of other European capitals. As Prime Minister George Papandreou embarked on his doomed attempt to reach agreement with opposition party leaders, the only place where there seemed to be any unity of opinion was on the streets.

Student protestors in London raged against a coalition government pricing many of them out of university education, Italians vented their frustration at the seemingly impossible survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while in Athens private and public sector workers expressed their anger at the latest set of reforms that are changing the face of Greek society.

Amid this turmoil, like the fishing boat skipper setting out for sea as the perfect storm looms, Papandreou cast his nets in the hope of catching a public relations victory. His effort to achieve “consensus” can be seen as nothing else but a frivolous foray into the choppy waters of political gamesmanship when there are much more pressing issues to deal with, such as thousands of Greeks losing their jobs and the country going through a violent adjustment to economic reality.

At a time when Greece, as well as many other countries in Europe are beginning to resemble the fractured British society of the Margaret Thatcher years, one of the former UK prime minister’s comments comes to mind: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” It perfectly sums last week’s aborted attempt to build accord between the parties.

Ostensibly, Papandreou invited the other party leaders for talks to find common ground on the challenging reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and to adopt common positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels at the end of last week, where politicians were due to agree on the details of the permanent support mechanism for members with sovereign debt problems. In reality, though, there were no grounds for believing that any of the political leaders would agree to common positions on the reforms or on what positions Greece should adopt at the EU negotiations.

It was delusional to expect any kind of understanding on the structural changes given that they were due to be voted through Parliament a few hours after the party leaders met Papandreou. It’s no formula for success to encourage someone to join you on a journey when your bags are already packed, the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. Understandably, none of the other leaders decided to jump in the moving vehicle. As New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras pointed out, there is a world of difference between “consensus” and “consent.” None of the other parties had been consulted about the content of the bill on the restructuring of public utilities such as the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and the redrafting of labour laws. Once the legislation has been submitted to the House, the role of the opposition parties is to debate it and then vote for or against it – the time for consensus-building has passed. But even at this late stage, the government did all it could to antagonize the opposition rather than encourage unity by submitting the reforms as an emergency bill and thereby limiting debating time to an absolute minimum. It’s no surprise that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras decided to boycott the talks with Papandreou – being portrayed as an accessory to policies you do not agree with, nor have had any part in shaping is not something that any young politician wants to have on their CV.

The reasoning that Tuesday’s “consensus” talks would firm up Greece’s positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit was also feeble. Papandreou had already made his government’s ideas on some of the key issues crystal clear both at home and abroad. He had been shouting from the European rooftops for some time that Athens was in favour of the creation of a Eurobond and against private bondholders having to accept lower returns, or a “haircut”, on their investment as part of a permanent bailout scheme. It’s implausible that Papandreou would have suddenly performed a volte-face because Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga or the Popular Orthodox Rally’s (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis expressed misgivings. As it turned out, the Brussels summit was a damp squib rather than a landmark moment demanding national agreement from all of Greece’s politicians.

There is no doubt there are few choices in the sticky position Greece finds itself– there is never much wiggle room when you have been backed into a corner. But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the course being followed to get Greece out of the crisis. After all, it has never been the role of any opposition to provide the sitting government with succour. Its duty has always been to challenge the government’s policies, to highlight its failings and to offer alternatives. One area where Greece’s opposition parties can be seriously criticized is not in their inability to find common ground with PASOK but in their failure to provide plausible alternatives. Samaras developed a pie-in-the-sky scheme to wipe out Greece’s debt by the end of 2011, which was roundly rejected in the November local elections. In democracies, opposition parties have and always will be judged by the quality of their opposition, not the level of consensus they achieve with the government.

Greece is going through a period of immense upheaval, during which, as Samaras said “the terms by which millions of Greeks live are changing.” Clearly, if everybody agreed on the recipe for change, this process would be straightforward but it would also mean our living, breathing democracy would be brain dead. If people are not to question their government’s choices now, then when? Why shouldn’t voters or politicians doubt the efficacy or fairness of some of the EU-IMF-prescribed decisions?

From the latest package of reforms, for instance, few would argue with reducing wages at public enterprises, where many employees had built cash-lined fiefdoms, and cutting costs at public transport companies that are losing taxpayers’ money by the bus-load. In fact, New Democracy supported these provisions, proving that you don’t go in search of consensus; you build it around your ideas. In contrast, it was much more difficult for the opposition parties to back the articles of last week’s bill that allow companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals. This is a clear challenge to the rights of employees in the private sector, who unlike their pampered public sector counterparts have only been enjoying the protection offered by collective contracts since the 1990s. These agreements, which blossomed after Greece’s entry into the EU, are designed to give workers more reasonable pay and conditions and shelter from unscrupulous bosses, of whom there are many in Greece. As such, they are completely in keeping with the EU’s ideal of creating fairer, more socially conscious societies. To strip away these rights, which include respectable compensation deals for sacked employees, as jobs dry up and Greeks have to think about how they’re going to feed themselves and their families only increases the sense of insecurity.

Equally importantly, it’s an affront to the section of Greek society that has carried the country for the last few decades. Private sector workers, of whom there are about 2 million in Greece, have been the ones who have consistently paid their taxes and social security contributions – after all, their wages are taxed at source. Whether the employers who have withheld this money have been equally diligent is another question. Yet, despite their unswerving dedication to fairness and the advancement of national cause, it’s these workers that find themselves being punished by the latest measures, which look like a precursor to collective contracts being scrapped altogether and private sector wages being forced down.

In this climate, therefore, it seems unrealistic, almost offensive that voters and opposition politicians are being asked to give their consent without the government making any effort to win what is a crucial argument. The bypassing of Parliament and collective contracts and the mantra that “there is no alternative” does not make for a healthy democracy, or for a public that can find much good in the measures. It’s a mix that leads to people losing their belief in the political system and seeking answers, a voice and, in some cases retribution, on the streets. After all, the way things are going, this is where an increasing number of Greeks will find themselves anyway.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Kathimerini English Edition on December 20, 2010.

When things fall apart

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Amid the upheaval unleashed by the near-collapse of the Greek economy and the austerity measures adopted by the government to halt the juggernaut of bankruptcy, it seemed an odd thing to notice as evidence of how the crisis was affecting daily life. But, somehow, the absence of the young woman who usually sat behind the ticket counter at the metro station seemed poignant. It was a reminder that there are faces to go with every cutback, tax increase and structural reform and how catastrophic policies and lousy leadership have led to the fabric of our society gradually unravelling.

It’s been a while since the ticket office was vacated – the woman who worked there was probably one of about 300 contract workers on the metro system who did not have their deals renewed in September due to public spending cuts. Since then, passengers have only been able to get tickets from one of the four machines in the station. It struck me as the first clear sign that even the things we have come to appreciate will not remain untouched. The Athens metro was one of the few public services Greece could be proud of but the absence of that face behind the glass felt like a portent that the crisis would soon get its bony fingers around the neck of this pristine network as well as so much else. 

There have been other telltale signs that the status quo is being buried beneath the ruins of the crumbling Greek economy: The growing number of people looking through dumpsters, the increasing frequency with which Gypsies drive through neighborhoods collecting scrap metal and how traffic jams are briefer, as Athenians think twice about using their cars because the cost of fuel has risen faster than Greece’s bond spread. As people pay more for their gas or basic goods, which have been hit by rises in value-added tax, so they spend less at shops – retail sales were down by almost 12 percent in August compared to last year. This has led to the crisis leaving the visible scar of empty stores in every neighborhood. 

With the closing down of shops and businesses come redundancies. The most recent figures put unemployment at 12.2 percent, or just over 613,000 people, up a staggering 35 percent since the same time last year. Like the woman from the metro, these are faces now out of the public eye. Instead they can be found in queues at dark unemployment offices or in front of the mesmerizing light of computer screens as they search for jobs. This is a crisis the impact of which can most accurately be measured by what is no longer happening rather than what is, by the people we don’t see rather than the ones we do.

At the metro station, soon after the woman in the ticket booth disappeared, one of the four machines stopped working. It has been sitting idle ever since, blinking an error message like Apollo 13 trying to contact a Houston control room that’s just not listening. A few weeks after the first ticket dispenser went into its death spiral, a second machine started rejecting banknotes. Metro staff taped a handwritten “Out of order” notice on it, advising commuters to use the other two machines. Presumably the engineers responsible for looking after these machines are no longer employed or are so few they can’t keep up. With the government looking to save 850 million euros a month from public enterprises next year, this is the new reality we have to get used to. But the lack of maintenance means that soon none of the machines will be working. It will be impossible to buy a ticket to travel, the system will disintegrate. What happens underground will be replicated above the surface. In the headlong rush to cut, scrimp and save without a thought for supporting or strengthening, things will fall apart.

That is the moment when the last chapter of this crisis will be written: When all the people who have been cheated, betrayed and mangled by the system step into the breach to reorder things. We are not there yet. For the moment, there is an eerie silence on the streets. After a flurry of public protests at the beginning of the year, the situation appears surprisingly calm – by Greek standards at least. To some extent this can be attributed to three bank employees being killed in May when a bank in central Athens was firebombed during a rally. But there is something more than that. There is a feeling of numbness that has seeped into Greece since the beginning of the year. The numbness that comes from realizing that events have caught you unprepared, the numbness of stepping into the unknown and the numbness of fearing for your future. Most of all, though, it is the numbness of seeing things around you being dismantled while you’re powerless to prevent it. This is what has stopped people from raging against feckless leaders, callous bosses and incompetent unionists. 

This silence, though, is deafening. It means that anger is building up. If you listen closely, you can hear the whisperings of a gathering storm. This isn’t something that’s happening in the streets or at the squares — it’s taking place in homes, where families are struggling to make ends meet and can no longer feed themselves on the broken promises of the past, it’s happening at cafes where friends meet while dreading they’ll hear more bad news rather than share in some good, and it’s happening in workplaces, where colleagues encounter empty desks rather than the people with whom they shared most of their daily lives.

As we prepare for a new year, when more sacrifices will be made – some fair, others particularly harsh – the clock will not just be ticking for the government, desperate to meet the targets it has been set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Time will also be counting down for the people who feel genuinely wronged by what is going on around them: those who are prepared to pay their share but are not prepared to pay for the failures of others. And, when the moment arrives, we will see again the faces of those who had disappeared and remember the pieces of our lives that were chipped away. Then, we will be spurred on to build things again, only this time fairer, stronger, better.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on December 3, 2010.