Friday, 12 February 2010

Smashing a few Greek myths

Oh my! My adopted country has really been hitting the headlines this week - and for all the wrong reasons. And the Euro-wide image that is emerging of the Greeks as a band of feckless, lazy, unethical and irresponsible ne'er-do-wells has got me hopping on the hot coals of my indignation.

Looking at the coverage of Greece's precarious economic situation, teetering on the precipice of national bankruptcy, it would be easy to believe that it is indeed the case. Little wonder that there are murmurs (nay, shouts) in the Euro press of "why should be subsidise Greeks' lovely lives?".

That comment, reported on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, finally roused me from my blogging slump determined to set the record straight for what the 'lovely life' of your average working bod in Greece is really like....

First of all, let's dispel Myth No.1. That most Greek wage slaves are employed by the state.
I'll admit that it would easy to believe that, as it is public sector workers who usually raise their voices, down tools and hit the streets in protest at the drop of a hat. Though the civil service is huge (for reasons I'll explain later), there is a massive army of largely unheard from workers in the private sector.

For the record, public sector strikes are a simple fact of life here - they are as Greek as ouzo and summer sun. The strike is the first response to just about everything - and one which the hapless workers in the private sector simply have to take in their stride while they struggle to get on with their own jobs. The strike this week in response to austerity measures announced by the Government, and widely reported by the international press, was really just "business as usual".

Greek public servants may not enjoy the best pay or working conditions in the world (nor the worst, as salaries are supplemented by a raft of benefits and allowances unknown in the private sector) but they are virtually un-sackable.
Yes, you heard me. A civil servant cannot be fired, no matter how lazy, incompetent or negligent they are in the line of their duties. It literally takes a criminal offence for a Greek public servant to be thrown onto the dole queue. It's a historic law, designed to avoid political patronage and the complete exchange of the entire civil service every time the Government changes hands.
(Strangely enough, political patronage still exists - not as a tolerated underflow of 'the system' but unofficially accepted by all and sundry as 'the system' - with plum jobs being awarded to cronies and dead-end jobs in the back of beyond doled out to those out of favour.)

The lot of a Greek public servant is not happy one (something reflected in the grumpy reception served up by many of those who deal with public) but.... in these uncertain days, the knowledge that you cannot lose your job represents an important psychological safety net. No wonder so many Greek families do their best to work the 'meson' (roughly translated as influence, or calling in favours) to get their children into the civil service.

Second myth. That hardly any Greeks pay taxes.
There is an element of truth here. Part of the cause of the huge mess the country is in is massive tax evasion. However, that doesn't mean EVERY Greek worker avoids paying his or her dues. For a start, when your sole source of income is a salary cheque where tax is duly deducted and documented, the opportunity for evasion is just not there.

The evasion lies with some of those who self-declare their income, often keeping two sets of accounts - one for the tax man, and another that reflects their real income (including the difference between what a receipt states and what is actually paid, payments made without any receipt being issued, and brown envelopes passed under the desk or slipped into a pocket with a wink and a nod in the hope of preferential treatment).

Not all business owners, nor the country's entire army of doctors or lawyers are guilty of such instituitionalised evasion. But a lot of them are.

Myth No.3. That life in Greece is easy.
That we all enjoy short working hours, minimal stress and frequent holidays. That the first two hours of the working day is taken up by preparing and drinking coffee, following by a couple of hours of gossip and analysis of the previous night's TV, then lunch, followed by more coffee (interrupted by the pesky necessity to check your email, stamp a form or answer a query from an annoying member of the public), then packing up to head home at 3pm. That we all live in idyllic surroundings, a stone's throw from the beach, eating out at picturesque tavernas and passing our afternoons in the luxurious indolence of a drawn-out game of tavli (backgammon) as we sip our ouzo and nibble on mezes.

Today, reality is rather different for most Greeks - and it bites. The old traditional routine of an early start, then stopping late midday for lunch followed by a siesta is largely a thing of the past. After all, when you know that you could be out on your ear if you don't deliver, it's a mighty incentive to dive into your duties as soon as you sit down at your desk, plough through your lunch break and finally head home at 7, 8 or 9 in the evening.
Believe me, high stress levels, mental exhaustion, unpaid overtime, weekend and holidays lost in order to meet deadlines and budgets, scattered family lives and burn-out are just as common in the Greek private sector as they are in any other European country.

The Government has pledged to do whatever it takes to tackle Greece's debt crisis, and measures to tackle huge public sector inefficiency and mass tax evasion will have to be part of that if they are going to make more than a dent on the huge deficit.

We have tough times ahead of us. And we will all have to carry the load - including the hapless workers in the private sector who are largely innocent of tax evasion and can be fired at the drop of a hat. Protests and strikes will escalate, for sure, but they will still have to get to the office every day. Prices will rise even more, markets will contract, more jobs will be lost, taxes will bite harder and we will face more years of slog before we can settle with a sigh into retirement. Like everyone else, private sector workers will have to be part of the solution - even though most of them are not part of the problem.

We're not asking for your pity, we're not asking for hand-outs (even though the EU may feel some may be necessary, in order to shore up the Euro). But please, let's get rid of the old image of Greeks as a sleepy moustachioed peasant clacking his worry beads and chomping on the cigarette stuffed into the side of his mouth as he leans lazily against his donkey and demands a week's wage to carry your suitcases up the hill to your hotel...


  1. Excellent, simply excellent!
    Great post!!!

  2. Very interesting post, I don't live in Greece but I think it's good to well informed about countries besides your own. Looking forward to your next post!

  3. Thanks for the post. You've shed a light on an aspect of Greek Culture I didn't know about.

  4. Many thanks for this post: a necessary adjunct - corrective, even - to much of what is being said in the MSM (my main sources are in France & Germany). Great blog, BTW! Bon courage - from someone else having a bumpy ride.