Greece: Poverty in a time of economic diktat

30 January 2012
Libération Paris

New Year's meals for the homeless, organised by the city of Athens on 1 January 2012.
New Year's meals for the homeless, organised by the city of Athens on 1 January 2012.

While negotiations on the write-down of Greek debt remain ongoing, Athens city hall is supplying two meals a day to jobless workers who are now threatened with famine in the wake of austerity measures: a situation that some Greeks readily compare with the occupation of the country during World War 2.

In a scene that is played out daily, at midday the silent crowd gathers outside the gates of the Athens City Hall which is only a stone’s throw from Omonia Square. How many are there? A hundred? Even more?

“In the evening, there are twice as many,” sighs Xanthi, a young woman employed by the City Hall “to manage the crowd.” The atmosphere is tense when the gates finally open, and a long queue forms for a stand distributing diet Coke and what looks like mashed potato in plastic dishes.

There are shouts and arguments. Everything has to happen very quickly: the stand will only be open for half an hour.

Amid the down-and-outs and the pensioners in threadbare clothes, there are members of a new category of soup kitchen customers who are clearly not used to scrounging for food, most of whom refuse to talk to journalists. “They are ashamed,” explains Sotiris, aged 55, who found himself living on welfare after 20 years spent working for a security company. “But in Greece, unemployment benefit only lasts for a year,” he reminds us.

In Greece, they call them the “neo-poor” or the “iphone homeless:” former employees of many of the small and medium sized companies that have gone to the wall, or civil servants who were laid off as a result of the austerity measures introduced over the last two years.

"Distributing food like we do in Third World countries"

Not only are they unemployed, but also deep in debt from consumer loans taken out during the boom years. Not so long ago – between 2000 and 2007 – Greece still had a promising growth rate of 4.2%. Then the 2008 banking crisis followed by the bombshell announcement of a record budget deficit of 12.7% of GDP at the end of 2009 brought down an economy built on foundations too weak to resist the speculative attacks of the markets like a house of cards.

Moonlighting, tax fraud, inefficient administration: the issues are well known and most of the population accepts the need for the structural reforms demanded by “Merkozy,” a.k.a. the Angela Merkel-Nicolas Sarkozy duo, which has dominated negotiations in Brussels.

But the austerity packages imposed on the country since the spring of 2010 have been hard to swallow. The wage earners and pensioners, who have been the worst affected, have seen their incomes dwindle, or even disappear in the wake of job cuts, while their taxes which are deducted at source have increased exponentially. As a result, in just two years the number of homeless has risen by 25% and many people are now facing a daily battle with hunger.

“I began to worry when in my consultancy I saw one, then two, then ten children who came for treatment with an empty stomach, without having had a meal the previous evening,” says Nikita Kanakis, President of the Greek branch of Doctors Without Borders.

Ten years ago the French NGO opened an office in Greece to cope with the sudden massive influx of penniless migrants. “Over the last year, we have seen more and more Greeks. Middle-class people, who have lost their social security status and can no longer obtain treatment in public hospitals. Six months ago, we began distributing food like we do in Third World countries,” remarks Dr Kanakis, who adds: “The debt problem is real, but how far is Brussels going to take its demands, when just a three-hour plane ride away from Paris and Berlin there are children who have no access to health care or even adequate food?”

"Greece is the laboratory"

On Thursday, a bizarre scene takes place in Syntagma Square, just opposite the parliament building in the centre of Athens: farmers, who have traveled 83 kilometres from Thebes to the capital, are giving out a free 50 tonnes of potatoes and onions. Announced on television, the distribution quickly turns into a riot, with everyone battling to get to the stalls. There are more disputes and shouts. “There hasn’t been anything like it since the occupation,” remarks Andreas, observing the spectacle from distance. The terrible famine caused by the WWII German occupation is still a strong memory.

However, the use of the term when describing the hunger that is now affecting the middle class is also in part a reference to the diktats from Brussels, and worse still Berlin. “Every three months, they threaten us with immediate bankruptcy and order us to squeeze the poor even more. And as for the money they promise, all we get is loans so that we can reimburse our creditors!” exclaims Andreas.

The shipping company worker laughs when we mention plans to cut 13th and 14th month salary payments. Like many companies, Andreas’ employer has not paid his wages for several months. “The bosses are using the crisis as an excuse so as not to pay their workers,” he complains.

Then turning towards the former royal palace which houses the national parliament, he adds: “There are 300 cretins in there who have fallen in step behind an unelected government. Do you think they have cut back on their own spending? The civil servants at the parliament are still receiving 16th month payments and no one in Brussels is the least bit concerned.”

Far from paving the way for a national mobilisation against the crisis, like the new government in Italy, the November appointment of Lukas Papademos has been followed by a largely unbroken silence. At a time when the country is negotiating for its survival and promising yet more austerity measures, the only interview accorded by the technocrat Prime Minister was with the … New York Times, which leads Andreas to conclude: “We are living in an economic dictatorship. And Greece is the laboratory where they are testing the resistance of the people. After us, it will be the turn of other countries in Europe. There will be no more middle class.”

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

Factual or translation error? Tell us.