Scarce Jobs, Slashed Salaries, and Schools Without Books: The Ugly Consequences of Austerity in Athens

By Pepe Egger

A woman holds a Greek flag as she takes part in a demonstration against new austerity measures recently approved by the government, in front of the Parliament in Athens.

Several thousand banner-waving protesters staged rallies in Athens and Thessaloniki on Sunday to protest budget cuts as eurozone ministers prepare to approve a new 130-billion-euro bailout for debt-crippled Greece.

In Athens, the beginning of autumn coincides with the return of an all too familiar scene: inside Parliament, politicians are quarrelling over details of the austerity requested of them by the Troika; outside, protesters are shouting their anger at what they see as unfair, unsuccessful and unsustainable policies.

Nikos Charalampopoulos, an Athenian teacher and trained political scientist in his early thirties, normally would be looking forward to the birth of his son, due any day now. Instead he worries about the uncertain future. He sees his countrymen isolated and abandoned, as they come back from the summer: “The kids are back in schools that lack basic necessary books; they will be taught by teachers whose salaries have been slashed. University students know that they have to work hard for a diploma, which still won’t find them a job. And the only answer the government can come up with is to cut even more, to deploy even more layoffs, to break up strikes and round up immigrants.”

Six rounds of austerity measures in February 2010 have left their profound mark, and there are an increasing number of voices suggesting that the limits of  acceptability have long since been passed. But the Greek government is unable to come up with an alternative. It needs help in order to remain solvent, the troika promise assistance, demanding in return “reforms”, i.e. austerity measures, which the government – despite all the protests- accepts as medicine without an alternative.

A generation without perspective

The Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis said in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian,”it is inconceivable that the austerity measures would produce the desired results”. He compared them with someone who “flaps his arms up and down hoping to overcome gravity.” Nevertheless, the government continues to force the population to collectively flap their arms about, and is in turn forced by the Troika to do so. Up to 150,000 civil servants are to be fired in 2015, more pay and pension cuts are expected.

The outlook for Nikos’ generation is bleak: “If you are 30 years old, you are either unemployed or working in a company where your salary will be cut and your rights ignored, because you have to be lucky to have any work at all.” Not to talk about buying an apartment or starting a family. “If you’re 40 and have children, you are either unemployed or have a second or third job as a pizza delivery boy, cleaner, taxi driver or whatever you can find to keep your family afloat. You don’t even think about enjoying your life any more; you’ve long thrown overboard all scruples about working illegally.”

Stelios (* name changed), also in his early thirties, can count himself lucky to have one of the few remaining well-paid jobs. He didn’t even suffer a pay cut because his employer is a foreign firm. This is why he would not want to cite his real name; he doesn’t want to attract envy. Some of his friends have lost their jobs; those still in training now have no chance of entering the labour market. “These are the worst off. When I meet with them, I am almost ashamed to say that I still have work and how much I earn.”

There are different kinds of shame in Greece these days:  those who have lost everything, are hiding their poverty and helplessness. Those who are still working and earning, feel guilty in front of their friends and acquaintances.

The cuts and austerity measures are not fair, thinks Stelios: “My father was a postman for 35 years and got a good pension of something like 1,700 €. Of these, the government took 30 per cent.  He now gets only the 1,200. And from this, every year 1,500 € are due for the newly introduced taxes for home owners. It’s illegal! He paid his pension contributions his whole life, and now, just because the Troika demands it, more than 40 percent is taken away from him. ”


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