Anger and belt-tightening in Athens
The European debt crisis started in Greece, which is still teetering on the edge of default as it struggles to repay billions of euros of loans. The government has has responded with austerity measures, including cuts in pensions and public sector salaries. But many Greeks say they should not have to pay for their government's excess.
Every few days in and around Athens you can find a group of people on strike. Often they are port workers who keep cruise ships from docking, which hurts tourism, a mainstay of the Greek economy.
Recently public transit workers and journalists staged a one-day strike. A few hundred media employees walked down a closed-off street towards the main Syntagma Square holding banners and responding to megaphone call and responses.
“The situation in Greece is very difficult for workers, for all workers, not just journalists,” says Catherine, who works for a magazine in Athens. “We have to pay for the crisis, only the workers.”
She is expressing a sentiment that many people seem to have - that they are paying for the excesses of others.
The government has announced cuts in public sector salaries and pensions, under pressure from the European Union and the IMF which engineered a 110-billion euro loan package to help Greece meet its looming debt obligations.
But many feel they should not have to pay for a problem that they had nothing to do with personally.
“Politicians have made a lot of mistakes,” says Kelly Ariopoulou, 28, a waitress taking a break on a main shopping street in Athens. “Government and businessmen took all the money.”
Business has slowed down at the restaurant where she worked, she has noticed, as people are going out less. Her friend, Maria Theodrakou, a journalism student, faced with an uncertain future, says she is certainly not spending as much as before
“I spend less, much less, because the things are getting worse and worse, and we don’t know what are we going to face tomorrow. So I try to economise, to have some money, just in case.”
Public service employees have already seen their salaries cut, notably the two bonus months they used to earn. Though even with bonuses, people were not earning that much money.
“I received about 1,150 euros, and now they reduced me to 1,000 euros,” explains George, a 35-year old physical therapist in a public hospital in Athens. He expects his salary to go down even more next year.
“I estimate next year I will take 800 euros … Fortunately I am very flexible, but my sister has two children and no permanent job. So far my parents have been able to help them. But now my parents’ pensions are going to be reduced by 20 or 30 per cent, and even my parents will not be able to help my sister.”
Maria Dacoronia, a teacher in a private school and mother of three, is cutting back expenses, even though her salary is not affected by the cuts.
“I think twice to buy something,” she says. “Everyone, I think, is reducing. And I don’t know how this could make us exit the crisis. If we consume less, I don’t understand how we will develop as a country.”
This concern is voiced by the unions, who say that cutting incomes will hurt an economy that is already suffering.
“We believe that these measures … are driving the economy into a recession,” argues Ilias Vretakkos, vice-president of Adedy, one of Greece’s two major trade unions, which represents public sector workers. He blames this crisis on the government and the financial markets.
“The European Union and the Greek government have tried through this economic crisis to help the credit problem that was created by the banks, by taking from the people and giving it to the banks.”
But the IMF and other economists claim government spending is the culprit behind Greece’s crushing debt, particularly pensions and salaries for what has been called a bloated public sector
Vretakkos says it’s a myth that there are too many public service workers - though he concedes there might be a misallocation of resources.
“The problem is that hiring in the public sector has not necessarily been based on what was needed, but on cronyism with politicians,” he says.
”As a union we have suggested that an inventory be done to find out where people are working. And then, fill the gaps with people who already exist, to try to make the system more effective.”
Indeed, corruption weighs on the system, which may take more to fix than just reallocating positions. It’s a problem that spreads from the top to the government - even in daily life.
While current and former government officials find themselves under investigation for accepting bribes and kickbacks, small businesses continue to find ways around paying taxes. Some estimate that unpaid taxes cost the government some 40 billion euros a year.
Faced with all of these problems, many are considering leaving the country. Maria Theodrakou says she’d like to leave, “but it’s not so easy".
"I love Greece," she says. "I never thought I could feel like this. But now it’s a reality, and we have to face it.”
Helena, 21, who is studying to be a primary school teacher, is not optimistic about her job prospects for next year after she graduates.
“I feel like I have no future here. And I wish I could leave everything behind and leave. I’ve talked about it with my family … but I think it’s difficult, actually. It’s one thing to think about it and another thing to do it.”