Greece: How did the country get itself in such a mess? (Part 2)

“Sometimes, it takes five years to get paid”, a worker told Matt Bain in Greece last month. This is the second part of a thoughtful and wide-ranging investigation into the Greek economic crisis and how it’s affecting young people there. Matt has had the rare opportunity to speak to ordinary young Greeks and get a picture of why this beautiful, complicated country has got itself in such a mess. Today, he looks at the perilous situation facing businesses and workers, assesses astonishingly low food prices and homelessness and asks how Greece’s history and politics have contributed to the problems it now faces.

Matt Bain

matt

Strolling through the city of Thessaloniki on a beautiful September afternoon, there was little outward sign that this is a country teetering on the brink of economic collapse. After months of rolling news coverage of unstable elections, seething rallies and closing banks, I expected to find a society barely functioning; angry and politically divided, people two meals (or cash withdrawals) away from total meltdown and social collapse.

The reality is that, for the most part, people are just getting on with it. They have no choice. Hard-left or right party protests, queues at bank machines and dramatic fighting-talk moments in parliament make good TV. What doesn’t make the headlines are the hidden stories of need and frustration; the desperate psychological battles people face each and every day just to get by. The sanguine smiles and cheery small talk of its cab drivers and shop keepers belie just what an appalling struggle daily life has become for the majority of people.

“People are holding it all together, but the difficulties they’re facing are truly unbelievable”, Antonis Sousamoglou, concert master with the City of Thessaloniki Symphony Orchestra, told me.

“If you have a steady income you can survive. But because unemployment is so high, employers can be ridiculously choosy. I have heard about a manager in one of the big department stores here who fires two people a month just because he can, and to scare people into working even harder. A lot of middle-aged women get fired”.

But Antonis knows, with unemployment currently at 24% of the workforce, that he is incredibly lucky just to have a job. Many thousands more have lost theirs. And the knock-on effects can be devastating.

In Britain and other western European countries we take for granted our much-cherished system of universal welfare and social insurance, founded in the years following World War Two. Greece, on the other hand, was absorbed in a brutal civil war during this time and a welfare state did not take shape in the same way. As a result, today there is no universal unemployment benefit, or a national health service.

“If you lose your job you get 300 euros for a couple of months, then it stops”, Ioannis Stratakis told me. With the number of unemployed people in Greece numbering over one and a half million, how have thousands of people not ended up on the street starving?

“They have to move in with their parents and rely on their pensions and life savings. Which is harder, since the pensions have also been cut.”

And what about young people who cannot depend on the benevolence of the older generation? Homelessness becomes inevitable – the number of people sleeping rough, particularly in Athens, has shot up.

“Before the crisis, homeless people were there mainly because of their own circumstances. Now, more and more people are ending up on the street because of general circumstances here”, Antonis told me. The only help the very poorest get is from charity, mainly via the church.

“Unsurprisingly, there have been many hundreds of suicides since the crisis began”, according to Ioannis, who is a viola player with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Greek Radio and Television Corporation, the orchestra that was closed down by the government at one day’s notice in June 2013. Since it was re-opened, the players have not been reemployed as civil servants but are now on short-term contracts, with payment for work often taking months, sometimes even years, to come through.

“A friend of mine still hasn’t been paid for a concert she did in 2013. Sometimes it can take up to five years. It is impossible to freelance now because you have to pay a flat rate of tax of around 700 euros a year to register as self-employed before you’ve even factored in any money you might make.”

Ioannis, who after working in Amsterdam for many years returned to Athens recently to look after his elderly father, told me that his orchestra had not worked for five months- a long time to survive without a regular income and any help from the state.

Even obtaining accurate information about the extent of the impact of the crisis is a problem, because Greeks cannot trust the media to accurately report statistics on homelessness or poverty, or what the government are even doing. Oligarchs originally given short-term contracts to run the TV stations in the 1980s are still running them, and as a result the depth of corruption and the suffering of ordinary people often go unreported.

“We have no equivalent to the BBC. To get the right information we need to read papers from other countries, reporting here. All we get from newspapers here is which government minister is sleeping with who. We don’t believe anything that we’re told”, Ioannis said wearily.

In the shops, prices haven’t dropped in proportion to the reduced income most are receiving, so the cost of basic living has soared. As a result, although they share a common currency with the rest of Europe, Greeks’ sense of the value of a euro and what you can expect for it are radically different to those living in other European countries. I was astonished at how cheap prices are compared to say, Paris or Barcelona. One euro for two very filling cheese pasties from a street bakery (I do not do justice in describing this Greek delicacy) seems a pretty good deal.

“But in the supermarket, you’d get 12 for a euro. Compared to our economy, that’s expensive. People can’t afford luxuries anymore,” according to Anastasia Chaloulakou, a student at the University of Thessaloniki, while Antonis told me that “wages just keep going down but you go to the supermarket and the prices are not that much cheaper to, say, the UK.”

And what of the view that the Greeks are reaping what they sowed in the ‘boom’ years? It’s easy to judge; I admit before I arrived I did too. But after scratching the surface and seeing just a glimpse of the unremitting hardship and suffering people currently endure, it is hard to believe that this austerity is proportionate to the ‘fortunes’ everybody supposedly accrued before the crash. For one thing, the level of corruption and cronyism in the government mean that, as Ioannis told me, “most ordinary people never saw any of that money.”

And for those who did enjoy a more comfortable standard of living- whether through higher salaries or pensions- they’re paying it back now, and then some. Hundreds of men and women like Ioannis are using up all of their pension and savings just to help support a generation of twenty and thirty-somethings that cannot find a job and have no-one else to turn to.

Is there any hope for Greece’s export industries, mainly tourism, to improve their economic prospects? This will be explored in the next blog.

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