Dora Kitinas-Gogos 2 May 2013
Neos Kosmos writer Dora Kitinas-Gogos is in Greece, and gives us her perspective of what's going on in our mother country
Pensioners shout slogans as they march during a demonstration outside the Greek Parliament. Photo: EPA/SIMELA PANTZARTZI.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched an old Greek film released in 1980 made by Theodoro Marangos called Sfixe Thanasi to Zonari. It's a film about a working class family and the trials and tribulations of making a living while bringing up two children. The film included the mandatory union bosses and organisations, strikes, low wages and most of all, the bureaucracy one must overcome to get things done. Even though the film was released over 30 years ago, it felt like it was set in the Greece of today.
Having lived in Greece for many years in the '80s and '90s, I don't feel as though much has changed, even under the conditions of the crisis. I wasn't living in Greece in the 2000s when there was a glut of money, borrowing, excessive use of credit cards and Greeks living way beyond their means, however, I did visit during those years and the rise in the cost of living was astronomical. People were living way beyond their means and had no idea what the cost would be for everyone.
I spent 13 years in Athens; working, sending my son to school, buying a house, getting a mortgage, trying to set up a business, and unfortunately, getting sick and having to endure the Greek medical system. These experiences all gave me first-hand knowledge of conditions of the daily living culture. I must also mention the antiquated rule/law that has a woman encumbered by either her father's or husband's first name.
Now I am in Greece and plan to stay for a lengthy time - as I did last year and the year before, and so I feel I am qualified to give my perspective on everyday living and the way this crisis has affected the average person. I will not delve into world economics, which have brought Greece to its knees, along with other EU countries and the USA. I will not make excuses for Greeks not paying taxes, but I would like to mention what I have seen and observed through my conversations with people from different walks of life and through first hand experience in the workforce.
First of all, let's clear something up. In all the years I was living in Greece, there were always strikes and hooligans destroying Syntagma Square and other public and private property. There were always masked youths, there were always Molotov cocktails and the police were always throwing tear gas - I have been caught in tear gas trying to get home. So what has changed? What I think has changed is that this is a situation where other members of the EU are trying to set rules. Greece is getting international exposure, so the whole world knows about the terrible Greeks that strike and destroy. Greece has not had this much international attention since the junta years 1967 - 1974. People do have a right to strike but, at the same time, they don't have the right to destroy public and private property.
What has also happened is that all the borrowing of money and credit card use has been taken away; there has been a serious attempt to collect taxes and a serious effort to deal with corruption. But what is really getting people worked up is the lowering of wages and lowering of pensions. The cuts to pensions have created a new type of poor. One must take into consideration that a pension is not offered freely to all Greek citizens - a pension comes from money that a person has contributed all their working life, and if you have never worked, as in the case of stay at home mothers, there is no pension. These cuts have crushed the dreams of people entering retirement.
We see figures of great unemployment in Greece, which are some of the highest in the EU (about 25 per cent, and over 50 per cent for youth unemployment). Here is my opinion on some of that unemployment. In days gone by, for instance, in our parents' times, no type of work was shameful. Today we have a population of over-educated youth that refuse to work at anything except what they studied. Subsequently, workers in the building trade, home help and farm hands are all migrants. I know for a fact that building, architectural and engineering firms hire foreign workers as they work hard, don't take smoking breaks, turn up on time and are prepared to work hard at anything that will give them a better standard of living than what they grew up with.
Let me point out some examples. Young Greeks will not pick fruit and will not work on building sites. They use the excuse of being separated from their families. We're talking about today's country, not the old days when a young man would leave his village and country and his mother might never see him again. It seems to be a better option to be unemployed and let family suffer than going that step further to secure one's self and family by working as a labourer.
We hear on the news of children going to school without breakfast. I find it difficult to get my head around a child being left without a piece of bread, while parents can afford to smoke. Yes, people still smoke like chimneys, something that two-odd years ago seemed to be waning but seems to have backtracked somehow.
I was in a taxi with a young man as the driver and overheard a conversation he was having on his mobile. Judging from my end, someone was asking him what he was doing and the taxi driver seemed disgusted with himself, having lowered himself to such an occupation. Later I could not resist asking him why, even though I felt I already knew in my heart.
"I have a degree from the Polytechnic ... "
I asked him what was preferable, to be unemployed and live on handouts or to earn a living in a honourable way till he found the job of his dreams. I ask you, how many of us find the job of our dreams?
My friends and acquaintances are middle to upper middle class or in the arts, and no one is unemployed, although as a lawyer friend tells me, for people working independently, things have slowed down and it takes longer to get paid. My friends in the arts take months, maybe even a year or two to get paid. I remember the delay of payment being part of the Greek culture from the years I lived here and it often comes up in old black and white Greek films. So it's endemic in the culture and not necessarily characteristic of the current climate, though now they seem to have an excuse at hand.
What I find disturbing in this crisis is the lowering of pensions, pensions that have been paid into funds over the working years of the individual. No, it does not work like Australia's superannuation, because you only get a pension in the end and not the bulk amount of money you have contributed, and what you pay in is already set by the state and you have no choice in the matter. For example, running your own business you pay TEVE 420 euros per month throughout your working life, and when you retire your pension would be about 1,000 euros. An employee in the private sector contributes via the employer 400 euros per month to receive an 800 euro pension.
An hourly wage in the private sector was 40 euros an hour, today it's 30 or 20 euros an hour. Pensions have been cut in some cases by more than half - trying to live on 400 euros a month, a Herculean feat.
A retiree who was getting 3,000 euros is now receiving just over 1,000 euros and someone who had a pension of 1,000 euros to begin with is now getting 800. These are approximate figures and vary depending on the business or profession.
Having said all the above, the truly disturbing sight is seeing elderly homeless men sleeping on beds made from cardboard with makeshift covers. These men are Greek, not illegal migrants, and I ask the question; what has happened to the institution of the Greek family? Having coffee with a new friend in a fancy hotel in Athens, I asked this question and the reply was: "You see, they have taken that from us too."
My reply was the stunned look on my face. The need to blame others for what is going on in our own home is ongoing in Greece, it is never our fault but a conspiracy by foreign powers, and those powers have even dissolved the Greek family.
Then there is the big thorn; the public sector, where Greeks are now blaming Andrea Papandreou for the expansions of the public sector. There is total denial that being a public servant has always been a Greek's ideal job, as all public servants have a guaranteed job for life. Lots of connections were used over the years for a public servant position. Andrea Papandreou expanded the public sector to about 40,000 and today it is estimated that there are 100,000. So what have all the subsequent governments done since the Papandreou years?
The taverns are full, the theatres are full, and the bars are full - with all the unemployed youth. Personally, I have not been somewhere where all the seats are not covered with someone's bum. Life goes on in Greece, with lots of complaining, but it is not the average professional who is suffering this lowering of standards - it is the elderly and some of the lower paid workers who are paying for the excesses practised by previous governments and society at large.
Despite the crisis, the sun still shines, the Aegean is still blue and this year 17 million tourists are expected