At the age of 26, Elisabeth Voglis still lives with her parents in a poor neighbourhood of Athens. She doesn’t have much choice, on a monthly income of just €300 (US$ 324) a month.
After being unemployed for several months, the best this young woman with a beautician’s diploma could find was a series of temporary jobs promoting products in supermarkets and shopping malls.
“You get paid €23.50 (US$ 25.30) for an eight hour day, and usually you only get to work for two or three days a week. It is only a temporary job, while I look for something better, and so I don’t just do nothing.”
Because she works so few hours, Elisabeth does not usually pay into her pension and social security scheme. But after being unemployed for nearly a year on benefits of €360 per month (US$ 380) she was at risk of losing her social security altogether if she didn’t find another job.
In Greece the long term unemployed (seeking work for 12 months or longer) represent 72.2 per cent of the total unemployed. They are no longer eligible for social security or the reimbursement of their health care costs.
“We are a lost generation. We left school at the beginning of the crisis and it has stayed with us for years. We have the choice between accepting poverty wages, being unemployed, or going into exile abroad,” sighs Elisabeth.
In this country of ten million people, over one million are unemployed, including nearly 50 per cent of young people and 27 per cent of women.
“When you are over 25, you are also discriminated against by some companies” says Elisabeth.
“When I was being interviewed for a job in a beauty salon, the boss pointed out that I would cost him more than a younger applicant.” Indeed the monthly minimum wage in Greece for a person under 25 is €310 gross (US$ 548), while for someone over 25 it is €586 (US$ 630).
While unemployment has fallen by three points in two years, as the Syriza government proudly points out, new jobs are more often than not part time or temporary. According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Labour, over 22 per cent of Greek workers are employed half-time or part-time and earn less than €400 gross (US$ 430) per month.
“Before the crisis, part-time contracts only accounted for 5 per cent of new jobs, but this has exploded now and over 40 per cent of new vacancies are for half time jobs,” says Dimitris Karagiorgopoulos from the main private sector union, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE).
“As one of the latest reforms includes increasing the social security contributions paid by employers, they are trying to find ways to make savings. Employing someone half-time halves the costs for a company,” he adds.
Some companies prefer therefore to hire workers part-time then pay overtime in the black, or not at all. Stella was faced with this at her last job working for an website.
“Your contract says you are hired part time to work six hours a day but in reality you systematically work eight hours a day. The workload is such you cannot spend only six hours at the office. But there is no question of asking to be paid for the overtime, because if you do the editor-in-chief is quick to reply that he can soon find a replacement,” explains the young journalist.
“Employers think that we will accept anything rather than be unemployed,” explains Elisabeth, who has had jobs where she was paid a percentage from sales made.
“For a while I did cold calling by telephone for an insurance company. Each time you convince someone to take the insurance you earn €35 (US$ 38). In a month you can expect to earn €350 (US$ 380) at best. When you are hired you can also choose to have a normal contract but then you are obliged to be profitable and to get at least one new client a day or else you will be sacked,” explains the young woman.
Another practice that is becoming increasingly common in Greece is to pay part of the salary in vouchers.
According to the centre right Greek daily Kathimerini, over 200,000 private sector workers are paid between 20 and 25 per cent of their salary in vouchers.
The Greek Employers’ Union (SEV) presents this slightly differently. “It is not part of their salary as such, it is a bonus,” said a spokesperson. Although the Greek state taxes other perks for employees such as company cars, food vouchers are not yet taxed.
Yannis Kostopoulos was hired by a major telephone company less than a year ago. For a 30-hour week he is paid €320 (US$ 345) net and gets another €150 (US$ 162) in coupons that can be used in supermarkets and some restaurant chains.
“My colleagues who joined the company before me were still paid their bonus in cash, a year and a half ago. Of course rather than getting coupons I would prefer to have money to pay my rent, my electricity bill, my travel...but given the current context in Greece, you make do with what you get,” says Yannis.
Dimitris Karagiorgopoulos of the GSEE says “no employer can replace part of your salary with coupons, which don’t count towards social security and pension contributions. We have informed the Ministry of Labour and we hope they will take measures against this practice.”
But the Ministry of Labour has other priorities: it is battling against employment on the black market which represents 10 per cent of the Greek economy and is in negotiation with the country’s creditors (European Central Bank, European Union, International Monetary Fund) to release a tranche of the €86 billion (US$ 93 billion) granted to Greece.
After increasing VAT on some foods and on the hotel industry, a laborious pensions reform that progressively dismantles the system of helping those on the lowest pensions and increases sickness insurance contributions, the creditors are demanding that the Greek government passes a law to facilitate collective dismissals and allow employers to temporarily close down their enterprise following an industrial dispute.
The trade unions have been organising rallies and demonstrations for several months already, and complain of the government’s failure to consult on these issues.
“We had hoped that after Syriza was elected in 2015 that the minimum income would go up, that our social rights would be preserved, but today we realise that this was just an illusion,” says Yannis.