Greek Austerity Protests Arouse Fury from the Man in the Street
It is not unusual for Greek workers to go unpaid for a year or more
VASSILIS Dermitzakis saw protesters screaming at riot police from outside a tall iron gate of the botanical gardens in Athens.
They were middle-aged, middle-class, well-dressed. He watched in disbelief as they tore a telephone booth out of the ground and charged, ramming the booth against the iron gate, which fell beneath their fury.
He was at last week's national day of protest because he too was angry. ''These people were not anarchists, they were not communists. There were women and men. They were the common people. After that, I realised there were people very, very much angrier than me.''
He expects to see more such scenes in the next national strike against austerity measures, a 48-hour stoppage that will be staged to coincide with the as-yet-uncertain parliamentary debate on the issue.
While the euro zone talks of Greek profligacy, Greeks living through the economic crisis remain furious over their suffering as a result of an austerity program that began a year ago.
Pensions are slashed and wages are plummeting but, despite the cuts, unemployment has risen and stands at 42 per cent for young people.
Five thousand protesters marched through the streets again at the weekend, despite an emergency cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister George Papandreou designed to appease them.
Mr Dermitzakis says he surveyed around 30 of his friends aged 25 to 34 and found only five who work full-time.
Mr Dermitzakis, 34, has not worked for five months. He says he was fired because he refused to work more hours for less money at the supermarket he had managed for five years.
He has never had a job in the vocation for which he is qualified - social work. He called to inquire about one vacancy and was told the incumbent was quitting because he had not been paid for 15 months.
It is not unusual in Greece for public-sector contract workers to go unpaid for more than a year, and now it is becoming common in private industry, too. Katerina Kouni, 45, a chef, says her 24-year-old daughter has just spent six months working in customer service for a phone company without receiving a single pay cheque.
''She goes to the labour office to complain, and they said, 'We have so many complaints that you must wait, maybe one or two years. So many people have the same problems.' ''
Ms Kouni's hours, meanwhile, were last week cut from eight per day to four, with her salary halved to match.
She helped her friend, Giorgos Lukas, hang his protest banners and caricatures of politicians at the tent city of protesters in Syntagma Square at the weekend.
Behind them drums played a warlike beat as activists twirled a giant white puppet symbolising a bloodied Justice.
Ms Kouni said Greeks were also bitter about inequity: ''The people with more money have become richer. It's the poor people paying, not the rich.''
Traditionally Greeks dealt with financial problems through ''family inter-generational solidarity'', says Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economic theory at the University of Athens.
''Grandparents would give pocket money to teenagers who couldn't get jobs. Parents would help the older generation.
Children would help each other. Now, for the first time in modern Greek history, we have all three generations hit at once: pensions are cut, salaries are reduced and jobs are fewer. So they can't help each other any more.''
He says Germans might see Greeks as ''spendthrift over-reachers good only for lying in the sun and retiring at 40, but the truth is different: Greece, even before the crisis, was the poorest country in the euro zone. Twenty-three per cent of the population were below the poverty line.
''But they feel the sacrifices they are making now are just making the problem worse. It's like the difference between the battle of Normandy and the battle of Gallipoli. With Normandy, soldiers made sacrifices because of a prospect of victory. This is more like Gallipoli. Greeks feel the generals are ordering them to walk straight to their deaths.''