USi spent six nights in Athens recently to gather momentum for our ‘Solidarity with Greece’ campaign with trade unions and community networks. This article is one of three on our reflections on the challenges facing the City and Greece – and what as trade unionists we must do to assist.
With Greece’s future increasingly in doubt an emergency government was established on Wednesday (16 May) with new elections set for 17 June. Away from the debates swirling around about GDP debt ratios, sovereign debt, and, bond rates something very profound and alarming is happening on the ground.
Unemployment, suicides, prostitution, drug abuse, depression, homelessness and hopelessness are sky-rocketing. You can see the visible impact of the economic crisis when you walk around areas of the City such as Omonoia and Agios Panteleemonas. It is not easy to witness or take in.
Greece’s jobless rate hit a new record in February. Data from Greece’s statistics service on Thursday (17 May) showed unemployment hit 21.7 percent in February. In the 15-24 age group it rose to 54 percent. The data showed nearly 1.1 million people were jobless, 42 percent more than in the same month a year ago, reflecting the huge scale of the human damage. However, the true scale of unemployment and underemployment is higher. The country’s economy continues to contract for a fifth consecutive year.
The New York Times reported in April that in Greece, the suicide rate among men increased more than 24 percent from 2007 to 2009, government statistics show. The suicide rate increased by 40 percent in the first half of 2011. Greece’s financial crisis has also made some families so desperate they are giving up the most precious thing of all – their children – as they can’t take care of them any longer. There are estimates that up to 20,000 people are homeless in Athens.
Prostitution is legal in Greece, with regular health checks for sex workers required, but authorities say only a fraction of brothels are operating with a license. According to the disease control center, 954 new HIV infections were reported in 2011, a 57 percent increase from the previous year. The authorities say they are concerned about the overlap between drug use and illegal prostitution. The Athens City government has said at least 315 brothels are currently operating illegally in the Greek capital. Greece is also the busiest transit point for illegal immigration in the European Union – and for human traffickers bringing women from Eastern European countries.
In conversation after conversation USi was told of the network of grandparents who are holding Greek society together with their pensions and support but this entitlement is continuously under attack to the point of being eroded. Wages have been decimated as you can read elsewhere on our site. People openly speak about moving out their homes (owned or rented) to move back in with family or friends as they can’t afford to pay the costs of living. Solidarity networks have sprung up all over Athens such as the Network for Cheap Potatoes and Convenience Stores to help alleviate the pressure and pain. But people and communities are hanging by a thread.
Society is approaching a critical point. This is the story the vested interests who pursue austerity do not want you to read or hear. They would rather it remains focused on the perpetuation of myths such as ‘lazy Greeks’ in order to carry through privatisation and liberalisation of the whole state for profit. The human damage is irrelevant or at best secondary to private sector investors being reimbursed for ill-judged financial decisions and the subsequent exposure they bear on other European markets. As has been illustrated elsewhere – particularly by Yanis Varoufakis – the economics of Greece is minor to the financial tsunami that threatens to implode across Europe – and the people of Greece are way down the pecking order.
The imposed conditions of the second bailout will be enforced in June including tens of thousands of job losses and further pay cuts. Those fortunate to still have a job are of course extremely worried about their futures. On the day the agreement was reached in February this year Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “Today the problem is solved”. To the contrary, unless resistance to austerity continues and increases – the problem may be only beginning.