ATHENS -- Banging bongo drums, blowing whistles and vowing to topple the government, thousands of state workers took to Greece’s streets Wednesday to protest looming job cuts that international lenders want in exchange for money to keep this debt-choked country afloat.
The protests marked the start of a 48-hour nationwide shutdown of public services, leaving schools, courts and government offices closed. State hospitals operated on skeleton staff while traffic came to a grinding halt as trains remained idle for four hours, leaving thousands of commuters and tourists stranded.
Although about 20,000 workers turned out at Athens’ main demonstration, protest crowds have dramatically dwindled from previous demonstrations because of relaxed labor laws making it easier for employers to sack unruly workers.
Still, the sweeping strike action comes days before a team of international debt inspectors arrives in Athens for a fresh audit of the country’s ailing finances and progress on the contentious layoffs plan -- the first official winnowing of Greece’s public sector, widely viewed as too big and too costly.
Under a revised agreement reached with international lenders, about 12,500 public-sector workers, mainly teachers, school guards and administrative employees, will be pushed into a so-called mobility pool before being evaluated, relocated or sacked within nine months.
An additional 12,500 civil servants will be bumped into the mobility scheme by the end of the year; a first batch of 4,500 will be fired outright by then. Failure to press ahead with the reform could stall a $1.3-billion aid installment due next month.
It could also scupper Greece’s chances of getting a third rescue package the government desperately needs to plug about $13 billion in fiscal shortfalls expected through 2015.
Although four years of brutal austerity have improved the state’s finances -- the government is no longer spending more than it receives -- the economy is not generating enough income to warrant an end to emergency bailouts the country has been receiving since 2010.
With most Greeks blaming austerity imposed by lenders for the country’s prolonged recession, many demonstrators on Wednesday questioned the need for a third bailout.
“No way!” said Yannis Karevas, a 45-year-old civil servant. “It will be Greece’s kiss of death. We should give it a pass.”
Carassava is a special correspondent.