The myth of the workshy Greek

Ashley Frawley reports from Greece on the reality of the economic crisis: millions of people working hard for low pay or no pay.

The story of a young geology graduate forced to stock shelves at discount store Poundland in return for her jobseeker’s allowance sparked a formidable backlash when it came to light late last year. Accusations of ‘slave labour’ were tossed around, and embarrassed retailers quickly withdrew their involvement with the government-run work-experience scheme. At the same time, the world seems slow to react in favour of the cause of Greek workers, even when, beneath the rhetoric of ‘belt tightening’ and ‘payback time’, a similar drama is being played out here, with little hope of a steady pay cheque at the end of it.

This is the reality of life in Greece. It’s not just the ridiculously low wages, whose consistently low rates (even before the crisis) have repeatedly been slashed and which new reforms seek to slash further. It is also the fact that even for those in work, what little pay that is promised is slow to materialise, if it does at all. Yet these facts are hard to dig out from underneath the all-out rhetorical offensive that has been launched against the Greek working class.

After all, they ‘had it coming’, didn’t they? A nation of tax dodgers and early retirees, it was their lax work-ethic that caused the crisis, and their bad behaviour that is now threatening to bring down the Eurozone. German chancellor Angela Merkel more than hinted that southern Europeans were not pulling their weight, ‘taking too many vacation days’, and mainstream media outlets have widely castigated corruption, not just on behalf of Greece’s plotting elites, but as something almost intrinsic to the psyche of the average Greek. It’s time they got a taste of what it’s like to ‘get up early’ and ‘work all day’, as a sensationalist open letter to Greece in a German tabloid put it back in 2010. Greeks have been told again and again that they have had their ‘party’ and now ‘it’s time to pay’.

While the metaphor of the hangover after the party might be appealing for its simplicity, it entirely contradicts reality. Moreover, the expectation that in good times one should receive decent and regular remuneration for one’s work hardly fits the definition of a ‘party’. Working for little or, as we will see, no pay at all, seems a bizarre and bitter cure for a ‘hangover’.

And yet working for free is precisely the situation in which many Greeks have found themselves. Given the nature of the phenomenon, precise figures on unpaid labour are difficult to come by, but workers at numerous companies, factories and media outlets have reached a breaking point for precisely this reason. Some have been striking; others have taken matters into their own hands.

In January, steel workers at the Loukisa plant went on strike after not being paid, in spite of their continued work, for over two months. Staff at the newspaper Eleutherotypia worked unpaid from August before calling a strike in December, announcing on their webpage that they’d had enough and that, ‘The workers are the soul of Eleutherotypia!’ In February, they took control of the presses and began publishing a ‘workers’ edition’, funded by solidarity movements and charging 30 eurocents less than the original.

Similarly, facing few job prospects elsewhere and with little hope of seeing another pay cheque, the workers of the television station Alter continued to go to work, day in day out, for over a year before becoming exasperated in November. The workers took control of the station and began broadcasting messages of protest to the nation, airing political documentaries and accusing their employers of fraud. And far from the caricature of the workshy Greek, living easily off the state and sipping ouzo by the sea, hospital workers in Athens carry on tending to patients while signs adorn the walls notifying passers-by that the staff have been working unpaid for months.

Here on the island of Lefkada, away from the epicentre of the crisis, far from the petrol bombs and burning banks, one could be forgiven for thinking that things might be different. Yet almost everyone I spoke to was in a similar situation. George, 32, a local house-painter who’s been out of work for the past three months, told me that at the time he lost his job he was already owed over €2,000 in unpaid wages. He gets by with help from siblings and searches for work daily, but tells me that there’s no work, and no hope of seeing the money he’s owed.

Similarly, Lampros, a 25-year-old physiotherapist, says that getting paid is sometimes more difficult than working: ‘Sometimes, employers don’t give the money, sometimes they take a long time.’ Giorgos, 41, the owner of a small shop selling household items, confirms the trend: ‘This is the case for a lot of businesses. By not paying, they try to buy time before they go under. People might work for two months and get paid for maybe 10-20 days. And the people are working because they don’t have anything else to do and everybody is waiting, hoping they will get paid.’

While they wait, the bills and the taxes pile up. Giorgos continues: ‘A lot of good customers, the government owes them money. The government owes billions of euros to people, and these people owe to others, and these to others, and so on. The debts pile up.’ But in the end, it seems the only debts getting written off in Greece are those owed to workers.

As for blaming the problems on lazy, tax-evading Greeks, Argiris, 27, asks: ‘How would you feel if you paid someone to build you a house, and you paid them for many years and when you were finally able to move in, you realised it was all broken and nothing worked; but then, instead of fixing it, they charged you rent to live there? This is the situation in Greece.’

Giorgos, the shop owner, puts it well: ‘They say it’s our fault, because things were starting to become good. For example, I have a store, I am an owner. I have my house and a small boat to rest on when I’m free and I can go on holiday for 15 days in the winter. They say, “Who are you, you Greeks, who have these things?” They don’t want people to be owners, they just want workers. “You are just a waiter or a barman, or you collect empty bottles. That’s all you should be.”’

Indeed, there is more than a whiff of ‘know your place’ about the treatment of Greeks throughout the crisis. A few weeks ago, I was told by a (still gainfully employed) businessman in Athens that Greeks had brought this on themselves. ‘Working-class men had luxury cars’, he told me with an air of disapproval. The implication of ‘allegations’ such as these is that it was wrong for people to have aspired to have a better life, better things, to have seen something in return for working six days a week, as many Greeks continue to do.

This response is, in effect, an unabashed admission that capitalism cannot give people the better life on which its cheerleaders have long based its claims to superiority. What is really odd is to blame the people for sharing this belief.

Ashley Frawley is a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer at the University of Kent.

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