Greek Workers Detail The Biting Cost Of Austerity

While EU leaders celebrate a new deal, Greece's citizens ready for yet another round of cuts.
The latest cuts have spurred protests on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities, along with heated exchanges insid
The latest cuts have spurred protests on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities, along with heated exchanges inside and outside the country's parliament this month. 

Greece’s parliament this month passed yet another round of austerity measures deemed necessary for it to continue receiving international bailout funds for its ailing economy.

The latest cuts have spurred protests on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities, and heated exchanges inside and outside the southeastern European country's parliament. 

The reforms signaled a renewed effort from Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government to incentivize credit disbursement in Greece and bolster the confidence of the European Union and International Monetary Fund ahead of crucial debt-relief talks.

Greece's efforts were greeted with a new round of debt-relief after lengthy meetings in Brussels this week, while the EU leadership celebrated the deal as a "major breakthrough."

I keep telling my children to leave Greece, even if they are both over 35. What will they and their children have to gain by staying here? Nothing, as sad as it is to admit. Giorgos Kosmadakis

However, many Greek citizens are frustrated and exhausted after consecutive years of austerity.

Protesters expressed outrage at the new measures to slash and restructure some pensions, as well as to raise taxes on insurance funds. They say these measures will place further strain on everyday Greeks who are already on the brink of financial ruin. 

The WorldPost spoke with five people from different professions who have dealt firsthand with punishing austerity measures in Greece. Across the board, they provide a bleak assessment of their present and future. 

  • <strong>Aleka Plakonouri, 54, freelance copy editor</strong> (<strong>Athens, May 16)<br></strong><br>I have been working as
    Danae Leivada
    Aleka Plakonouri, 54, freelance copy editor (Athens, May 16)

    I have been working as a copy editor for publishing houses and media organizations since 1988, mainly focusing on literary fiction. For the first eight years I was an in-house employee, but I’ve been a freelancer since 1996.

    Being a freelance copy editor was never a lucrative job in Greece, especially when compared to other countries. But I could say that for a brief period -- from the late ’90s up to the mid 2000s --  things were OK. I wasn't making a fortune, but I was getting by. Around 2008, just before the onset of the country's economic crisis, the situation started to get worse: Wages were dropping, payments were delayed, there were fewer jobs and insecurity was on the rise. In 2012, I was out of a job for around 10 months, which was really tough. But even when I have work, there is the burden of being self-insured and the tax on my income is enormous.

    Four years ago, I was forced to stop contributing to my social security fund. In addition to my debt, contributions to my social security fund plus taxes meant that I had to give more than I make. I was originally making consecutive payment settlements to be able to pay off some of my debt, but it has now piled up to 60,000 euros ($67,242). Right now, I am not covered by health insurance, so I can’t afford to go to doctors or get medical exams. What's the point of worrying about my health if there isn't much I can do about it? I deal with things as they come.

    I used to feel very anxious about the possibility of getting punished because of my debt. We’ve been hearing that people will be sent to jail etc. But I can't keep worrying, this is no way to live. As for this government, and the bill it passed that put an even heavier burden on working people, there is no doubt in my mind that they were never a left-wing government. Apparently, this is what they intended to do from the moment they took power.

    While the future looks obviously very bleak, I keep fighting anyway I can, both for labor rights in my field and for social justice. It is through collective action and meeting with others that I don't allow myself to despair. The most important thing for people to realize is that this predicament is not their personal fault or failure and that the logic behind things is economic.
  • <strong>Giorgos Kosmadakis, 69, retired naval officer (Athens, May 18)<br></strong><br>I have been a pensioner since 1997. <a
    Danae Leivada
    Giorgos Kosmadakis, 69, retired naval officer (Athens, May 18)

    I have been a pensioner since 1997. Since 2010, when the crisis manifested in Greece, a series of new laws started dismantling the social security system, hitting pensioners especially hard. Main pensions and benefits were cut and things instantly started getting worse. My annual income between December 2009 and December 2015 has been cut almost in half. Of course, both my main and supplementary pensions suffered greatly, but what bothered me most was the impact these changes had on my health insurance: In 2012, I had to do a specific medical exam for my heart when the cardiologist told me that, unfortunately, the public medical services could not cover the expenses for such an exam unless I had suffered a very serious condition, such as a heart attack. Eventually, I had to go to a private physician; this is where things are headed, we are being forced to turn to private insurance. As a result of all this, I always feel very anxious about health issues, and this insecurity doesn't allow me to make any plans for my life.

    The reforms of the social insurance system should have taken place a long time ago, when some pension cuts would not have felt as harsh. Mismanagement of the pension funds was happening and I'd say it was like a serious illness that all previous governments had tried to treat using aspirins. But now, under these new laws, the most basic things have come upside down; nobody could imagine a few years back that basic labor and social insurance rights would be violated so brutally. With market prices still very high, how can one live? They say they won't cut pensions any further but they intend to cut dividends, so it is not much better. The government also says that they won't harm the lowest incomes, but they are already so low, that it's a joke to even mention that. I have had my pension cut three times and dividends slashed another couple of times.   

    I keep telling my children to leave Greece, even if they are both over 35. What will they and their children have to gain by staying here? Nothing, as sad as it is to admit.
  • <strong>Marina Kalafati, 52, owner of a s</strong><strong>mall street kiosk selling newspapers, cigarettes and snacks (Athens
    Danae Leivada
    Marina Kalafati, 52, owner of a small street kiosk selling newspapers, cigarettes and snacks (Athens, May 17)

    I have worked in different places during my life, from the theater to administrative positions, and I eventually started my own business, this small street kiosk, in 2014, amidst the crisis. It was a risk. I was doing fine until my revenue plummeted, almost a year ago, following the enormous VAT [sales tax] hike on the majority of products in the previous year -- they went from 13 percent to 23 percent. Now, with the new tax law, it's going to go up to 24 percent. The new legislation makes small businesses suffer -- they just can't compete with the big business.

    To be honest, I am trying to hold on for another year, so that I would be entitled to a small unemployment benefit from the small businesses insurance fund, but even this will be minimal. According to the new law, I will be entitled to a pension when I am 62, which is in seven years' time. Right now I already owe 1,560 euros ($1,748) to my fund because I haven't been able to pay it for the past six months. And I can't pay basic bills such as electricity. In two months, I will not have access to medical care if I don't find a way to pay my debts. I am afraid of reaching this point where I am up to my neck in debt, unable to get a new job because of my age and without access to social insurance. I could even lose my house!

    It feels as if recent governments under the bailouts consider small businessmen as con men, even if we don't make any profit. I think that the current government should have quit the day they knew they would do the exact opposite of what they had promised. I feel that there is nothing to hope for, because the pit we are in has now deepened into a trench. I would really want my 14-year-old son to leave here if he wants the prospect of a better life.
  • <strong>Lila Leromnimon, 37, high school teacher</strong> <strong>(Athens, May 18)</strong><br><br>I have worked both in the
    Danae Leivada
    Lila Leromnimon, 37, high school teacher (Athens, May 18)

    I have worked both in the private and public sector since 2001. In 2008, I started working as a biology teacher in public school. The private sector was far more insecure than the public one, that much is true, but right now I could say that everything has become very fluid. I became a public school teacher at the onset of the crisis, so I can't really compare to how the situation was before. I haven't received a raise or any decrease in teaching hours, and this is probably how things are going to stay. Schools have been affected by the crisis in terms of lack of money for infrastructure and lack of teaching staff, especially outside Athens.

    Regarding the new social insurance bill, I can't say much yet. We need to wait and see how it’s implemented. As a public worker, I have a pretty steady income and my social insurance contributions are linked to that, but I think I am in a slightly better position than self-employed professionals. I feel I am more protected.

    The most disturbing thing about Greece right now is the instability: Even with the social security reforms, you can't be sure where things are going to end up. I wish we could at least have a faint idea of what tomorrow will look like. Right now, we can't be certain of anything.
  • <strong>Dimitris Niafas, 34, lawyer (Athens, May 17)<br><br></strong>I have been working since 2005, and I was with a big law
    Dimitris Niafas
    Dimitris Niafas, 34, lawyer (Athens, May 17)

    I have been working since 2005, and I was with a big law firm for six years. Now, I collaborate with a friend and colleague. I am self-employed.

    What has been striking about the social insurance system, specifically regarding self-employed professionals in “bailout era” Greece, is that every three years we have had to upgrade to a higher category, meaning pay more money in contributions, regardless of profit. For me, this means that last year I had to pay 5,000 euros ($5,500), which is a big amount for my income.  

    Being a self-employed lawyer in Greece is problematic for a number of reasons right now. You have to be able to keep an office and pay bills etc. as you also pay huge social insurance contributions and taxes, since there isn't any non-taxable income for self-employed professionals as is the case with employees. This means that our income is taxed from the first euro we make. Of course, the poor financial situation overall has repercussions on our job: a lot of people can't afford to pay lawyers despite the need to settle vital legal issues, so our work-rate has dropped.

    In general terms, the new social insurance bill establishes a more immediate connection of  contributions to income, obviously affecting higher incomes more. There are a few points that appear to be moving things in a better direction. Overall, however, the recent bill basically marks the evolution of the social security system from redistributive to contributory, a tendency that first appeared quite a few years back. Pensions are still going to be cut. And in terms of the relationship between employer-employee and the state, the latest bill manages to get the state to contribute as less as possible to the employee's' social security. It is a “fiscal” treatment of social insurance.

    Many lawyers now pursue jobs in big firms, where they get paid very little, because they cannot afford self-employment. I would like to remain self-employed and be able to do my job with independence and dignity, without pressure that might compromise the quality of my work.