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Greece struggles to slim the state

As austerity measures continue to bite, public employees have come out to protest against the new, leaner state.
Last modified: 18 Sep 2013 19:42

Central and local government, law courts and schools remain closed throughout Greece on Wednesday and Thursday, as the country grappled with a public-sector strike against austerity.

Wednesday's march through Athens by roughly 10,000 public employees marked the height of a week of troubles for Greece's austerity government.

It was the banner event of a 48-hour strike in the entire public sector, to protest against ongoing attempts to slim the state. Greece has already been experiencing the effects of an indefinite strike in public high schools, which began in earnest on Monday.

Secondary school teachers, in particular, are fed up with the indignities of austerity.

They say they have lost almost half their income during the crisis, and 16,000 - about one in five - have been allowed to fall off the payroll as their contracts would up or they retired.

The result is that this year the government is asking those who remain to spread themselves across various subjects - yet it has cut their overall teaching hours.

"You cannot have growth without health, education, electricity and water," says Thanasis Konteles, a teacher and union leader in Athens' southern suburbs, outlining sacred areas in which he believes the government should not attempt severe savings.

"We’re not against reform, but we want to have a voice in the process."

Big-budget items

Health and social security are big-budget items, however, and the cuts there have been deep. Since 2009, the government has slashed pharmaceutical spending alone by some $3bn.

It is now consolidating public hospitals and cutting spending on medicine even further. Its plan is to save another $800m to bring total health expenditure to about $4.8bn in next year's budget.

"We're trying to do the reforms in the healthcare system that other European countries have done many years ago - spending less money for better healthcare," Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis told Al Jazeera.

He believes that his plan to create fewer, larger hospitals with satellites of primary care centres will ultimately give Greeks better health services. The radical left opposition party, Syriza, he believes, orchestrates street demonstrations like the one on Wednesday.

"People on the left are good people, they're romantic people, they're utopic (sic) people," he says.

"But they don't live in this world. They live in another planet … Greece was the last soviet state in the European Union. This has to be ended and we will end it now."

Not all Greeks see austerity as a process of ultimate improvement. Instead, many see a two-tier society taking shape in the widening gap between private services for those who can afford them, and dwindling state services. “I came here for a biopsy and they said 'wait six weeks'," says Katerina Ioannidou, a former state employee who was fired from public television this year.

Al Jazeera met her outside Konstantinopouleion hospital, which has just absorbed the remnants of a smaller the government closed this month. "Imagine having cancer for six weeks and not knowing it."

Soaring unemployment

Austerity has managed to close an annual deficit of some $50bn over four years.

That has produced 27.9 percent unemployment, the highest in Europe, but mostly at the expense of the private sector. Even though at least 180,000 people have left the public payroll during the crisis, some 700,000 remain, and the government has promised its creditors to shed almost a quarter of them over four years.

The conservative-led government has made the strongest efforts of any administration during the last four years to reform the state. It passed legislation this year paving the way for mass dismissals.

Yet for all its efforts, it hasn't managed to fire a single employee. Two thousand were meant to go in June, and as many again by August.

Efforts to fire the first batch by shutting down public television, ERT, ended in a debacle.

The government lost a coalition ally, the Democratic Left, over the closure, and saw its parliamentary majority drop from 19 seats to a mere five.

That leaves it vulnerable to defections and inherently insecure. It has since lost any practical benefit to the public payroll that might have transpired, promising to hire back two thousand of the roughly 2,700 people employed by ERT.

The road to an efficient state that costs less and attracts investors is apparently going to be a long one.