Greece civil servants’ secure jobs stir resentment among public

Physical therapists protest against austerity measures outside the Ministry of Health in Athens last month.
(Fotis Plegas / / European Pressphoto Agency)

ATHENS — With a new batch of budget cuts looming, Greek officials have made it clear that they must target the state’s nearly 1-million-strong army of civil servants, shaving salaries, benefits and bonuses for the third time in three years.

“We’re doomed,” says social worker Dmitra, 44, who asked that her last name not be printed for fear of reprisals. “Whoever said we were privileged and protected?”

And yet, many Greeks emphatically contend that government workers are protected. At least they still have a job.

Since the financial crisis erupted here in 2009, the unemployment rate has vaulted to 24% from 7.8%, adding 800,000 Greeks to the ranks of the unemployed, for a total of 1.2 million. But all the job losses have come from the private sector.


“It’s like a ship is sinking and there aren’t enough safety rafts, but public sector employees, because of their lifelong job security status, are on deck, rushing on board the boats safely,” says Nikos Tsafos, a Washington-based economist. “Does that seem fair?”

The civil service has long been a sacred cow. Successive governments, mainly headed by the socialist PASOK party, for decades stuffed it with political — and at times, doltish — hires, swelling it to a fifth of the nation’s 4.2-million-member workforce in 2010.

Even now, few politicians seem willing to overly offend members of the potent voting bloc.

In recent months, a junior partner in the ruling coalition has balked at creditors’ demands that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras shed 15,000 public jobs, endangering a shaky alliance that the conservative leader stitched together after winning two divisive elections in May and June.

The country remains under heavy pressure to get its house in order. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is widely reviled in Greece because of her demands for tough reforms, is scheduled to visit this week. Last week, inspectors from the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank were in Athens, and they reasserted the demand for public sector cutbacks.

Now, facing a need to trim an additional $13.7 billion, Finance Ministry officials say about 70% of that will come from the civil service, trimming as much as 12% of judicial officers, police officers and military troops.

Pensions will also be reduced again, and the retirement age, currently 65, looks likely to be raised to 67.

Fear of future public sector sackings and the added austerity have unleashed more protests. As popular resentment grows against the country’s political elite, wrenching economic and social shifts have also left this country of 11 million bifurcated between public sector and private sector employees, compounding the already deepening divide between the haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor.


“I’ve never felt more insecure,” said social worker Dmitra as she turned off a TV news report and rolled some Old Holborn tobacco. “It doesn’t seem like we will be spared.”

The latest divide has become so distinct and vivid, experts say, that severe social fallouts could follow.

“It’s like civil war without the strife,” said Giannis Panousis, a professor of sociology at Athens University. “As the crisis deepens, so too will the division, leading to extreme individual reactions and blind social explosions.”

A decade ago, Maria Katsoula considered herself middle class, working at a thriving supermarket chain. She lived with her sister, Vasso, a cleaner at a refinery. Then the recession hit and both lost their jobs. Maria twice attempted suicide; Vasso’s health deteriorated. They eventually moved in with their parents, but food and medical expenses have been impossible to cover with their father’s meager pension.


“The other day, I caught him [their father] rummaging through a dumpster, picking eggplants,” said Maria, who has a neck tattoo that reads “Trust no one.” “I never envisioned my life changing like this.

“I have no sympathy to spare for civil servants now. They have been pampered and protected for years. It’s high time they feel the pain we have endured for years. Perhaps only then can we start feeling like we are in this struggle together.”

Economists like Tsafos have long talked of the need to spread the pain of austerity evenly between Greece’s private and public sector. By some accounts, such a move would have saved the government $5 billion in 2011.

But not all are convinced.


“It’s easy to oversimplify,” said Savas Robolis, a professor of economics at Panteion University. “Trying to find scapegoats — in this case, the civil service — isn’t a solution to Greece’s problems. Finding a curative strategy other than austerity is.”

Carassava is a special correspondent.