Thursday 8 December 2016

Greek tragedy: nation lives out drama, one act at a time

Laura Heuvinck in Athens

Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (L) talks with Michael Noonan
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (L) talks with Michael Noonan

As the political theatre continues behind closed doors, frustration is hitting the lives of the Greek people. Recently, I heard of a Greek woman in her 30s who finally found work. Upon starting the job over a month ago, was informed that she would not be paid until Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and creditors reached a deal.

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Another person started a sales job in the largest department store in Greece, Attica, which isn't quite as fancy as Brown Thomas but comes close. She works there five days a week for four hours a day and takes home €220 a month - the price of a nice pair of shoes there.

However, one of the most upsetting stories is one by Greek geologist Maria who has a strong affiliation with Ireland. While studying for her degree in geology in Athens, Maria had first-hand experience of the disorganised Greek education system - which she says is a joke, as it took her longer to finish the degree due to the failings of the system. After struggling through unpaid internships, she went to do a master's in environmental science in Dublin in 2011 on a scholarship from the Irish government. Returning home in 2012, the Greek job market had seen no improvement: in fact, in 2010, when Greece sought the assistance from the Troika, the country's unemployment rate stood at 12.6pc. Today, that figure stands at 25pc.

When Maria returned from Ireland, she worked at the University of Athens as a scientific assistant, working 11 hours a day and being paid just €1,200 for three months' work. Disillusioned, she joined one of the job programmes that the government has created with EU funds. For €650 per month, she worked for 5 months as an environmental scientist on Crete. It quickly became clear that the whole programme was a sham when she didn't receive payment until she had spent more than three months complaining about the lack of pay,.

The work experience offered as environmental scientist included gardening and cleaning - although, granted, there are worse places to do some gardening than one of the nicest islands in the world. When she objected to management about the tasks she was being asked to do, she was told that trees are in nature so the work was relevant to the job description. You can't argue with that logic.

Companies were rampantly abusing the system that was designed as a safety net for young people - and the corruption was so blatant - that the new government has announced it is cancelling the voucher programme, despite the fact that more than 16,000 young people have already been selected to participate in the latest phase.

Maria was teaching grinds and night classes to survive but, having been on continuous temporary contracts, the 31-year-old has never been eligible for unemployment benefits. There are no unemployment benefits for temporary workers but also no right to medical insurance if you are unemployed and over 30.

Not that it would matter so much, as even if you did have insurance; two years ago the doctors were on strike for eight months because they were not being paid and many hospitals are in a dire state as they're understaffed and under-equipped. Today, Maria is still awaiting payment from seminars she taught last year. As her daily life became a battle, she has now taken on a second job as a tour guide outside Athens. Maria has pleaded that I include the fact that she wants and likes to work but needs decent working conditions. Greeks work the longest hours in Europe, according to the OECD, but living in Greece has become increasingly difficult for many young people.

Those who can, emigrate. But those left behind struggle to be given an opportunity. Unemployment benefits - for those who are eligible - are cut off after one year, leaving many people with little choice but to become dependents on other family members, whether working, retired or emigrated.

Greek pensions are very low in comparison to Ireland and are in fact on average less than the €650 per month that people need to stay above the poverty line in Greece. They have nonetheless remained a point of contention in the discussion with the lenders, where the current government does not want to concede any measures relating to the elderly. But with Greece spending most out of any EU country on pensions, the creditors are demanding a cut of 1pc of GDP in pensions alone.

Pensions are a funny thing in Greece. A 17-year-old girl whose father, a senior army official, died at 56 received €400 of his pension once she turned 21 for as long as she remained unmarried. Today that woman is 56. An estimated 25,000 of these payments are still part of the government's expenditure. This while most army officers are forced to retire at the age of 48 with all expenses paid. The pensions might not be high, but many ex-army officers then go on to work for another 10 or 20 years, in many cases undeclared.

The truth is that the vast majority of the country cannot benefit from some of the quirky loopholes. Take Neni, a pensioner living in the north of Athens, who has worked for 40 years in the private sector and in the last few years has seen her pension fall by 53pc. Having worked hard for this, she feels any more cuts are unfair - especially as many are still on large public sector pensions. At 70 years of age, she counts herself lucky that her children still have jobs, but has really had to keep an eye on spending to cover the rent and costs of her small car.

Despite many media stories of elderly Greeks becoming dependent on their children or vice-versa, Neni believes that most older people are too proud to have to ask their sons and daughters for assistance.

Her prediction for Greece's future is bleak, maintaining that the return of the Drachma will spell the end for Greece. She says losing the protection of the EU will leave the country vulnerable to Turkey, Russia or others on its uncontrollable borders.

While the average Greek might not understand the details of the treasury bills, bonds and loans that make up the bundled debt packages, they understand that it won't be until 2057 that the final tranche of €1.13bn will be repaid. Debt relief would offer some hope to people that they are walking towards light at the end of a very long tunnel. In 1933, post-war Germany was still recovering from the losses of the Great War, which left the country completely humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent war reparations that led to economic and political disintegration. The extreme left and the extreme right, led by Adolph Hitler, thrived in a social climate of unrest. We know now how that ended. In the years after World War II, the German economic system collapsed again but, having learned from past mistakes, in 1953 the London Debt Agreement cut the levels of German debt - even that relating to World War 1. There was a general acceptance that this debt relief would allow Germany to recover more easily; but also that it could help to prevent the anger and loss of dignity which set the country on course for a second World War.

The irony that Germany is now sitting on the opposite side of the table has not been lost on the Greeks, possibly since the word irony comes from the ancient Greek word for ignorance. The Greeks have now demanded war reparations from Germany relating to the invasion during World War II. Syriza, the party in government, is a coalition of the radical left, while the third largest party in the parliament is the extreme right Golden Dawn.

Europe is playing with fire in not recognising the dangers of humiliating a whole nation and one can only hope that the future generations of Greeks will not repeat the errors of the last century as they bid to restore their dignity.

Irish Independent

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