The myth of the “lazy Greek workers”

Since the crisis in Greece has hit the headlines there have appeared in the bourgeois media many stories about how Greece has too many civil servants, how the working week is very short, how people retire early on fat pensions, and so on, as if this were the cause of the crisis. Facts and figures, however, can be very stubborn things and they tell a completely different story.

During the last few days we have witnessed an unprecedented smear campaign against the Greek working class by the European bourgeois media, in particular by the tabloid press, which is specifically aimed at working class people. This campaign is aimed at deceiving the European workers and its objective is clearly to prevent them from assuming internationalist action of class solidarity towards the working class of Greece, which is being brutally attacked by both Greek and foreign capitalists.

The first myth being promoted in this campaign goes more or less like this: “these lazy Greek people, who constantly go on strike without any reason, then come running to the Europeans to finance their own laziness”.

The rank-and-file of the European Left and of the workers’ movement internationally must be told the truth, but unfortunately this will not be forthcoming from the main media outlets. Let us look at some facts. According to Eurostat, Greek workers work on average longer hours than the rest of Europeans. They work a 42-hour week, while the average working week in the 27 member states of the EU is 40.3 hours and within in the “Eurozone” it is 40 hours. So that is myth number one dispelled.

Again, according to Eurostat, Greece also has the most underpaid private sector employees compared to the rest of the “Eurozone”. In Greece, the average gross monthly wage, including social security and taxes, is 803 euros [about £700 or US$1063], while the lowest gross salary in, for example, Ireland is 1300 euros, in France 1250 euros and in the Netherlands 1400 euros. So myth number two doesn’t stand up to any serious analysis of the real figures.

Another idea being bandied about is that if it were not for the EU and the IMF stepping in and imposing strict measures, the Greeks would have happily continued to live on ever-increasing wages. However, according to the Labour Institution of the GSEE [the Greek general confederation of private sector unions], the austerity programmes already imposed by recent governments in Greece even before the current crisis had erupted had already cut the real average wage in the private sector to 1984 levels.

Thessaloniki on 1 May. Photo by apαs.Thessaloniki on 1 May. Photo by apαs. What about the age of retirement and pension levels? If we were to believe the bourgeois media Greeks live in a kind of workers’ paradise, where they can all retire early and nice big pensions. Again, facts and figures are stubborn things and they give a completely different picture. The average age of retirement in Greece is 61.4 years, a little higher than the European average of 61.1 years.

And what about these fat Greek pensions? According to the GSEE Labour Institution, the average pension in Greece is 750 euros per months [£650 pounds or US$990], while in Spain this figure reaches 950 euros, in Ireland 1700 euros, in Belgium 2800 euros and in the Netherlands 3200 euros. Moreover, this figure was calculated before the implementation of the new government measures, which increase the age of retirement from 65 to 67 years while at the same time cutting pensions by 30 to 50%.

Furthermore, according to the annual report of the joint GSEE-ADEDY trade union confederations on the economy and employment levels in 2009, of the current four and a half million labour force, more than a million work without any social security or other forms of legal protection. According to the report of the Commission for Social Security, established by the Greek Ministry of Labour, this figure reaches 30% of the overall workforce, while in the rest of the EU the percentage of workers in these conditions are only between 5 and 10% of the total.

And whose fault is that? Contributions are supposed to be calculated by the bosses, who pay a part themselves and the remainder is paid by the workers out of their wages. But that would mean declaring the workers legally and paying taxes on the profits made. The bosses prefer to hire a sizeable number of workers illegally, in the “black economy”, and thus save on both taxes due to the state and contributions. If the bosses had paid all taxes due in recent years, and if they had paid what they are supposed to pay into social security funds, the situation would not be anywhere as bad as it is today. It is the Greek capitalists and the foreign investors who have profited from this situation. But who are they blaming? The Greek workers and poor, of course!

On top of all this, in Greece there is also the phenomenon of around 300,000 “false self-employed workers”. These are workers who have in reality been forced to set themselves up as self-employed. In reality they work for a boss who can freely assign the manner, the time, the place of work, and the working conditions and thus this form of working is essentially employment by a boss, but with the added advantage that he can sack them whenever he wants, as formally he is the workers’ “client”. Bosses prefer this method of employment because these workers are not treated legally as employees; they don’t have the same legal rights as the rest of the working class, such as monthly salaries, paid holidays, etc. Employers can fire them freely, even without any compensation. We must also add to the list the 200,000 “part-time” employees, most of whom work full-time but are being paid half-time.

In the smear campaign, there have been many reports concerning the supposedly “excessive” number of civil servants in Greece. According to reports of the ILO (International Labour Organization), civil servants in Greece represent 22.3% of the total workforce, while in France the percentage is 30%, in Sweden 34%, in the Netherlands 27%, in the UK 20% and finally, in Germany 14%. So we can see that Greece is actually below the average. The most important fact, however, that has to be borne in mind is that 300,000 of the public sector employees are working under temporary contracts, which means they have far lower wages and much fewer rights.

Instead of civil servants’ wages going up in recent years, we have seen the opposite phenomenon. As a result of the constant cuts carried out since 1990, according to an ADEDY report [the civil servants trade union confederation], the total real income of civil servants has fallen by 30%. During recent years, governments have preferred to grant “allowances” to civil servants instead of real wage increases. These allowances have neither been included in the annual pay rises nor are they taken into account when calculating pension levels upon retirement.

The bourgeois propaganda also continues to attacking the so-called “13th and 14th month’s salary”, in an attempt to create the impression that Greek workers enjoy higher wages than their European counterparts. In reality, these extra “salaries” are bonuses for Christmas (the 13th salary), Easter and allowances (14th salary), which were given separately as a method of fragmenting total annual income, in order to facilitate commercial and tourist growth during “peak periods” (i.e. holiday periods), in a country whose economy is based mainly on commerce and tourism. With the new recent measures taken by the government, civil servants and pensioners lose both of these salaries. What must also be noted is that all the wage levels, all the facts and figures about the Greek workers’ wages listed above include these extra “salaries”.

The myth of the “opulent” Greek workers is ultimately destroyed if we look at the massive increase in the cost of living in Greece. While the wages and salaries are among the lowest in the Eurozone, the prices of basic goods keep soaring. Let us take a look at a few examples. In Greece a packet of cereals costs on average 2.86 euros, while the same packet costs 1.89 euros in the UK (51% cheaper than in Greece) and in France 2.25 euros (27% cheaper). Greeks buy a toothbrush for 3.74 euros while in the UK the same toothbrush is sold for 2.46 euros (52% cheaper). A pack of soft drinks that costs 3.1 euros in Greece, costs 2.76 in Belgium, 2.3 in France and 2.68 in UK. The most prominent examples are a cup of coffee or tea: in Greece the average price is between 3 and 3.5 euros, more than twice the average in most European countries.

Of course, during the same period, there are some Greeks that could be accused of living in opulence, indeed at record levels, compared to both Europe and globally. But these are not to be found among the Greek working class. During the first half of the past decade Greek capitalists were constantly in the three top places in the league table of profitability globally, while Greek bankers even now are enjoying the highest rates of interest in Europe. This is not by chance. Their profits have been based on the fact that they had at their disposal a workforce that has been on some of the lowest wages in Europe. Added to that they had a sizeable section of this workforce employed in the “black economy”, where they were able to save huge sums on taxes and social security contributions.

The smear campaign of the capitalist press throughout Europe is thus based on nothing but lies. The truth must be explained within the labour movement in every European country and beyond. Real wages are far lower, the working week is longer than average, the age of retirement is higher than average, but one thing has indeed been higher: the profits made by the Greek and foreign capitalists in Greece.

This does not mean that workers in the rest of Europe are living that much better. What is being done to the Greek working class, tomorrow will be done to the Portuguese and the day after to the Italian, the Belgian, the British workers and so on. Already in Ireland we have seen what the capitalist are capable of. Greece provides merely a foretaste of what is coming very soon in the rest of Europe.

What the bourgeois media is trying to do is to play off one working class against another. They are putting the blame for the present crisis of the euro on the Greek workers, using them as a scapegoat. This is all in preparation for the attacks they are preparing across the whole of Europe. Tomorrow, no doubt, we will hear about the lazy Portuguese, the lazy Italians. In Britain no doubt, the campaign about social security “scroungers”, i.e. unemployed workers, will be stepped up, and finally the day will come when the German capitalists will discover that German workers too are “scroungers”, that they have lived it up for too long and some “sacrifices” need to be made.

The European working class must not allow this campaign to go unanswered. It is the duty of the labour movement organisation in all European countries to counter this campaign and tell the truth and put the blame for this crisis where it lies, at the door of the European and world capitalist class.

The workers of Europe must act in solidarity with the Greek working class, which is being cruelly attacked by the EU and struggle together against this attempt to first divide the workers and then to pass the burden of the crisis to the European workers as a whole. This will involve a European-wide struggle. In all countries similar conditions are being created. In all countries the attack is the same. What is required is international solidarity across borders, a struggle for a socialist Europe that will finally make those who are responsible for the crisis pay, by expropriating those who are truly lazy, those who produce nothing, those who live off the sweat of the working class, the industrialists, the bankers, the financial speculators, the ship-owners and the owners of the huge commercial chains.

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