International

Greece makes austerity push, workers strike

People attend a demonstration as part of a 24-hour media blackout of print, broadcast and electronic media journalists.

ATHENS: Greece’s government presented a new austerity package to parliament Monday as a week of strikes and protests kicked off over proposals that lawmakers must approve if the country is to secure more aid and stave off bankruptcy.

Parliament is expected to vote on Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s 13.5 billion euros ($17 billion) package of cost cuts and tax hikes Wednesday along with measures making it easier for firms to hire and fire workers.

Despite public exasperation at four years of belt-tightening that has helped wipe out a fifth of the economy and leave a quarter of Greeks jobless, the package and a tough budget slated for a vote Sunday are expected to scrape through parliament.

Greece’s powerful main public and private sector unions will launch a 48 hour strike against the legislation on Tuesday and plan marches in the centre of Athens. Journalists, doctors, transport workers and shopkeepers also planned stoppages.

Approval of the reforms and the passage of the 2013 budget are crucial to unlocking 31.5 billion euros in aid from an International Monetary Fund and European Union bailout that has been on hold for months.

“These will be the last cuts in wages and pensions,” Samaras said in a speech aimed at galvanizing the members of his center-right New Democracy party.

“We promised to avert the country’s exit from the euro and this is what we are doing. We have given absolute priority to this because if we do not achieve this everything else will be meaningless,” Samaras said.

Without the aid, Greece will not be able to redeem a 5-billion euro treasury bill falling due on Nov. 16. The bulk of the new aid tranche, some 25 billion euros, is earmarked to recapitalize Greece’s struggling banks and kick-start moribund lending, a prerequisite to climbing out of recession.

But union leaders say the measures will simply deepen an economic contraction expected to run into next year.

“Our labor action next week will be part of efforts to avert policies that will sink the country deeper into recession and destroy the fabric of society,” said Yannis Panagopoulos, head of the GSEE private sector umbrella union.

The capital’s 14,000 taxi drivers are on strike and office workers complained of long commutes due to a halt on the city’s metro, tram and city trains, which serve 500,000 people a day.

Protests will intensify Tuesday, ratcheting up pressure on coalition deputies whose parties have slid in polls since a June election in the Mediterranean country of 10 million.

A poll Friday showed New Democracy’s support had fallen to 22 percent, from 30 percent in the June election. Its Socialist PASOK partner had fallen to 7 percent, down from 12.3 percent according to the PULSE survey.

“Everything is black and it will only get worse. They have exterminated us. They have turned us into prisoners,” said Eleni Tatsou, 38, who works in a kebab shop in central Athens.

“I haven’t been paid for eight months, but I know nothing will change if I quit, so I’m waiting. Maybe I’ll get paid one day. Maybe a miracle will happen.”

The smallest party in the ruling coalition, the Democratic Left, has pledged to stay in government but rejects the plans to cut wages and severance payments and scrap automatic wage hikes, saying they will devastate workers who have borne the brunt of the crisis.

“We will not vote in favour of these measures,” Dimitris Hatzisokratis, a Democratic Left spokesman, told Reuters. “But we will support the budget, which means we are giving our vote of confidence to this government.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 06, 2012, on page 6.

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