Greece’s main public and private sector unions, GSEE and ADEDY, declared a 24-hour general strike on Wednesday, to protest austerity measures, imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank.
Unions claim that these measures are the main cause for the country’s steep recession and skyrocketing unemployment.
The protest – the first general strike in Greece this year – precedes a visit to Athens by auditors representing the indebted country’s international creditors later this month.
According to a statement by the IMF, issued last Thursday, the mission will assess Greece’s implementation of the austerity programme and begin discussions with Greek and European officials.
The strike has paralysed the country, as civil servants including doctors, tax officers and state bank workers, as well as seafarers, lawyers, construction workers and teachers have all participated in the one day walk-out.
Public and municipal services are closed for the day, with state hospitals manned only by emergency staff, ferries are docked. Public transport in the Greek capital of Athens has also been disrupted.
A protest rally was due to begin in Athens city centre at 11.00 this morning followed by a march to the Greek parliament.
Meanwhile, the communist-affiliated ‘PAME’ group of trade unions has also called workers to strike for today, and has organised a separate rally.
The unions are asking for signing and implementation of collective bargaining agreements, the adoption of effective measures to combat unemployment and the revocation of ‘undemocratic’ measures taken against employees and syndicates, in the context of the country’s Economic Adjustment Program.
"The brutal violation of fundamental working rights, such as the bloodsucking taxation imposed on the working population and pensioners have exceeded every limit," private sector union GSEE said in a statement.
On the other hand, Greece’s three-party coalition government insists there is no alternative to the harsh austerity programme that has been adopted in return for vital EU/IMF funds, necessary to avoid bankruptcy.
In particular, Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras has sought to maintain a hard line against strikes and protests, aiming to show the country’s foreign lenders – as well as the public – that he is determined to push through unpopular reforms.
Samaras’s stance was made explicit when, in late January, the government invoked an emergency ‘civil mobilization’ law, usually used at times of war, to end a nine-day walk-out by subway workers that brought Athens to a standstill for a week.
A few days later the same law was applied to order seafarers back to work after a six-day strike.
Successive cuts to salaries and pensions over the past three years, in a country that is entering a sixth year of continuous recession, have caused repeated protests.
The country’s two main unions, which combined represent about half of the Greek workforce, have vowed to keep opposing the budget cuts and have already announced their intentions for more demonstrations.
"We’ll keep fighting," said ADEDY’s President, Costas Tsikrikas, in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s strike. "We demand that Europe’s heavyweights change their dead-end policy".
Meanwhile, according to official government data released last month, Greek unemployment rates soared to a record high of 26.8 per cent in October 2012, overtaking Spain by 0.2 per cent, as the country with the highest figure recorded in the European Union.
In November 2012 alone, 126,000 Greeks lost their jobs and an all-time record of 1.34 million people were without work in October 2012, in a country of approximately 11 million.
The number of youths aged between 15 and 24 out of work in October rose to 56.6 per cent compared with 22.1 per cent in the same month four years ago, according to the Greek statistical service ELSTAT.
Greece’s jobless rate has almost tripled since September 2009 as the country’s debt crisis has deepened, and is more than double the average rate of the 17-nation euro zone, which stood at 11.8 per cent in November.
Austerity policies imposed by the bailed-out country’s international lenders to shore up public finances have taken a toll on the battered economy and with more spending cuts this year, unemployment figures are expected to rise even further in the coming months.