Greece: A Brutal Experiment on People's Lives
Greek unions launched a two-day general strike on February 10 against new extreme austerity measures the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Union is seeking to impose on the southern European nation. The deal will give Greece a new “bail-out” worth 130 billion euros (A$161 billion) in return for fresh spending cuts.
Amid ongoing street protests and building occupations, the Greek cabinet approved the deal on February 10. Six cabinet members resigned in protest. Greek parliament was scheduled to vote on the deal on the evening of February 12.
Below, Afrodity Giannakis writes from Thessaloniki on the impact of the austerity on Greek society.
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I work as a permanent English teacher in a Greek village, where I drive every day from my home in Thessaloniki.
A few days ago, I was looking for a magazine in my neighbourhood at about 9am before going to work. I found that all the shops in the block had put up the shutters, except for one closer to my home, which did not have the magazine, anyway.
Shops closing down is a common occurrence in neoliberal capitalist Greece, but the situation has rapidly deteriorated since May 2010. That was the time of the first memorandum, imposed on Greece by the “troika” (the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — IMF) and the Greek Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) government.
Shop owners are forced to close because of the steep plunge in consumption, combined with higher government fees and other expenses.
I drove along the national road to go to work, about 45 kilometres from Thessaloniki. Until recently I worked 80km away from home. Last year I worked 700km away and it is highly uncertain where I will be placed next school year.
Far-away placements have been commonplace for Greek teachers for a long time. What is new is the rising casualisation, intensification of work and overall job insecurity.
Now, it is going to be almost impossible for teachers to make ends meet if they have to move away from home. Having a job at all is also highly uncertain.
The reason is that the troika, in close collaboration with the unelected Greek government imposed by the troika, has decided on more public sector sackings.
The plans are part of the second memorandum agreement between the troika and the Greek government.
This memorandum includes cuts of 14.3 billion euros between 2012 and 2015, starting with 3.3 billion euros this year.
With 11 million Greek people, these sums come up to a high amount per head. This is all the more shocking if we consider that a huge proportion of Greek people live in extreme poverty.
The number of Greek people living at or below the poverty line is more than 3 million and rising.
The new agreement includes 150,000 public sector sackings to be be carried out by 2015. As a start, 15,000 public servants will lose their jobs this year.
Immediate sackings of 22,500 temporary and casual teachers has also been raised.
The troika has persistently pushed immediate cuts to military personnel numbers. This may be cause for concern in the light of recent official statements that anything is possible in Greece.
From the first memorandum on, measures first raised years ago have finally been implemented. The attacks on the Greek people seem to be part of a well thought-out plan.
For example, the capitalists and their political representatives have long demanded an end to public service job permanency. They have also aimed to do away with collective agreements.
Furthermore, ex-Pasok prime minister George Papandreou had arranged to hand Greece over to the IMF before his party won the 2009 elections.
The measures against the Greek people are unprecedented. People are in a constant state of stress, not knowing what is coming next.
My friends, colleagues, comrades — most people I come across — don't seem to smile in the way they used to. They seem thoughtful, less happy, lost, even depressed.
The immediate effects of the public sector sackings will be higher unemployment (the official figure is now 20.9%) and deepened recession.
In my job, after the sackings of temporary and casual teachers, face-to-face teaching hours will rise for those remaining. Needless to say, there will not be an accompanying salary rise.
These austerity measures are taking place against a background of deteriorating conditions for students and teachers.
There is a shocking shortage in school books, about 2000 schools closed down in the last school year, class sizes have risen and funding for education has dropped to 2.75% of the gross national product.
Schools do not have enough funding for photocopying paper or central heating. In this year’s freezing winter, students and teachers have had lessons with their coats on. Schools have been forced to shut down due to inadequate heating.
The recession will be worsened by the 22% cut in the minimum wage (32% for workers under 25). The minimum wage will fall to 600 euros (A$741) gross a month (473 euros clear, less for young people) from the 739 euros gross specified in the National General Collective Agreement.
The estimated loss is three months wages per year. This comes on top of the huge wage cuts since 2010.
The unemployment benefit, pensions and bonuses will be also be affected. The dole will go down to 369 euros a month from 461 euros.
The minimum wage cut will trickle down to all wage brackets.
Pensions are also going to be slashed. Pensions in public enterprises such as the Greek electricity company, as well as salaries and job permanency, are set to be worst affected. The explanation given is to make these enterprises more “competitive” before privatisation.
Driving to work costs me almost 300 euros a month, while my salary has gone down to 800 euros a month clear, from over 1200 before the first memorandum.
Public service salaries have been cut by about 40% since the first memorandum. The most recent cuts, of up to 50%, were made last October. Another big salary cut is planned for later this year.
I am still managing to hold on to my car; using public transport for work would be very inconvenient.
Many people have given up their cars due to financial hardship. Soaring petrol prices, as well as rises in car registration and car insurance fees, have compounded the problem.
About 160,000 number plates were handed in to the taxation department at the end of the 2010 financial year. Last year, the number exceeded 250,000.
Not surprisingly, petrol consumption dropped by 22% last year, causing more than 1500 petrol stations to close in the past two years. Thousands of jobs were lost as a result.
Driving to work, I took a detour to avoid paying the predatory road tolls. On top of the high car registration rates and high petrol consumption tax, Greek people have to pay costly road tolls to private companies.
I kept looking for the magazine as I drove slowly through three villages. The sense of devastation wasn’t as pronounced as in bigger towns or cities, but a lot of shops seemed to have closed down recently, with shop and merchandise signs still on them.
I finally found a kiosk still in operation, in the last and biggest village. I finally bought my magazine.
On the same day, during my break, I was unable to find a National Bank of Greece branch in the village where I work. I spotted a branch office in the central square. It seemed to be under renovation, but it turned out the branch had closed down.
I had similar experiences looking for a doner kebab place, a particular petrol station, a particular bank where I used to pay my natural gas bills and a big cosmetics store I used.
All shut down, empty and dusty, with some of the signs still on and the windows serving as billboards.
A huge number of homeless people can be seen living in open-air spaces. There are 25,000 homeless people in Athens alone, driven out of unused public spaces by the Pasok-affiliated mayor.
Many homeless people are dying during this year's extremely harsh winter.
Public welfare services, as well as schools and hospitals, are all but demolished.
People are driven to sordid poverty and despair, as working rights are abolished and public enterprises and resources are sold off. At the same time, rising taxes, along with relentless price rises, are unbearable.
Tens of thousands of households and small businesses have had their electricity cut off due to unpaid bills.
Many children faint in schools after they go hungry for days because their parents can't afford to buy food. There has been a huge rise in the number of children sent to orphanages.
In many areas, the church or neighbourhood groups give out mess to paupers. People scavenging rubbish bins for food is now a common sight in Greece.
The Greek ministry of health reports psychological problems and suicide rates have risen dramatically.
In an attempt to deceive the people, Greek ministers have claimed they negotiated hard with the troika before signing the agreement. They put on a big show of trying to stop further bonus cuts, which were supposedly finally stopped.
Government officials are also talking about economic growth. On February 4, after a lengthy talk with the troika, the Greek finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, called on all Greek people to stay united and do their bit “to save the country”.
By implementing more and more austerity measures, the government deepens the recession and devastates the lives of the overwhelming majority of the people.
Last November, the head of the European Commission Task Force for Greece, Horst Reichenbach, said that Greece was not ready for investment, as it hasn't hit rock bottom yet. You don't need a major in politics or economics to see what’s in store for the Greek people.
The people are angry at the pro-memorandum political forces. Pasok is polling 7-9.5% (coming fifth), the other major party, the conservative New Democracy has about 19% and far right Popular Orthodox Alert (LAOS) has dropped to 4%.
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) are polling about 9% each.
The left must take advantage of this historical opportunity, join forces and help the Greek people reclaim their lives. They have to show the way forward, instead of passively waiting for elections.
We must thwart the capitalists’ plans. This nightmare has to stop and the capitalists will not stop unless we stop them.