Greece On Fire (Continued): Those Famously Extravagant Greeks

by Raymond Garcia, June 9, 2010

Previously, I raised a point that is crucial for under­standing the situation of Greece today: that all of the images of Greeks as over-paid, lazy, extravagant, blah blah blah— hit the international media after the run on their sovereign debt by financial profiteers had begun. In other words, popular opinion about Greeks is essentially an echo chamber justifying the “judgment of markets,” or the actions of financial debt and derivatives swindlers, hedge fund division, Goldman Sachs conference. So let’s consider just how extravagant Greeks really are.

First off, everybody has now heard that many Greeks receive 14 months pay for 12 months work. “Two months extra pay for nothing!” shout outraged news sto­ries, editorialists, and people published in “letters to the editor” sections. It’s funny that this was never noticed before the hedge fund profiteers set their mark on Greece’s sovereign debt, but there it is.

What nobody seems to notice is the ridiculously low wages in Greece to start with, and the byzantine system of wage supplements that has been developed to com­pensate for this. (After all, where did the word “byzan­tine” come from?) The starting base pay in Greece is generally very low, and supplements negotiated by un­ions and management that are added on for various fac­tors and bonuses, like targets met, successes achieved, years served, and the like.

The extra two months pay are holiday bonuses for Easter and Christmas — did I mention that Greeks are very religious? — but are based on the initial low start­ing salary, not on the complete compensation package. So Greek workers don’t get 14 equal payments, but 12 months of compensation and 2 bonuses based on their extremely low starting pay. Get it?

For example, the monthly salary of a senior tenured university professor is about 2,000 Euro (about $2,500), or 24,000 Euro (about $30.000) per year. That’s consid­erably less than a lumpen academic (temporary faculty) would get in the US, much less an assistant, associate or full professor. It’s the same comparison with faculty in Germany, France or the UK. Even after all of the add-ons, Greek professors make about half as much as their colleagues in the previously mentioned countries. Oh my, such luxuriant extravagance!

Or consider the basic salary (the European version of the minimum wage), a much more relevant comparison (all figures from The Federation of European Employ­ers). In Greece, the basic salary is about 740 Euro per month, compared to France, Belgium and Holland, where the basic salary is over 1,400 Euro (Germany is similar, though lacking a specific minimum). About half as much, with a considerably higher cost of living no less (with an economy hooked on those German imports). So even if the byzantine salary supplements bring up the average wage by half (they generally don’t), they are still making over 300 Euro per month less than these fellow Eurozone countries.

The basic salary is even lower in Spain and Portugal. Yet, like Greece, they too are being told by the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to drastically reduce wages, to become “competitive.” They just haven’t received the “Extrava­gant Greek” treatment yet in the international media. With the corresponding reductions in social benefits and sell-offs of public lands demanded by ECB and IMF structural adjustments, we’re looking at nothing less than class warfare being waged on the working classes of Europe at the behest of financial swindlers plundering the public wealth in one last huge spasm of gamblers’ greed. Oh, but it’s easier to cry “14 months’ pay! Those extravagant Greeks!”

The story is similar when it comes to the purportedly generous retirement benefits of Greece. An article in the May 30, 2010 Sunday Times of London (“Keep Work­ing: Europe Cracks Austerity Whip”) posted a list of retirement benefits that had Greece at the top, receiving over 90% of their salary in retirement. By contrast, Ger­mans only receive 43%, and the French 53%. Of course, it doesn’t point out that this is over 90% of the very low base pay, not their full compensation. When this is fac­tored in, Germany’s 43% and the French 53% benefit is considerably more generous than Greece’s retirement benefit.

The same article states about Greece that “They were allowed to join the common currency for political rea­sons and built lavish state systems on the back of it…” So we are led to believe that it has only been over the last nine years that Greece has built up social welfare programs, at the expense of their generous European betters.

What utter bullshit. Over 55 years of social and politi­cal battles in Greece to establish the state benefits available for over three or four decades of work magi­cally disappear in the demonization of Greece. Appar­ently, Greece has only been civilized since joining the Eurozone in 2001.

Then there is the retirement age. Much was made of how Greeks retire way before their European colleagues do. But this has also proven to be a lie. The retirement age in Greece for men is 65, just as it is in the other European countries (except France, where it is 60).

It turns out there are a small number of people in pro­fessions deemed dangerous that can retire early. This benefit is for those who have completed 15 years of work, out of which 12 are in jobs classified as Heavy and Hazardous. The age at which this retirement can be taken has risen from 55 in 1997 to 60 in 2007.

The “shameful” example paraded around was of hair­dressers retiring at 50, when in reality it is nail polish­ers/manicurists that now must be 60 to retire, who work with dangerous chemicals every day for 12 years. Go ahead and try it for a day, much less 12 years, if you think this is overly generous. And don’t forget the basic salary is very low, so the retirement benefit is low as well. This collectively bargained social benefit will be disappearing soon, along with a large number of other progressive policies fought for and won in decades of working class political activism.

This caricature of Greece is so far from reality it is laughable. However, there is nothing funny about senior citizens having their retirement benefits savagely cut by edict of the European Center Bank and the IMF, leaving most of them with little more than 400 Euro a month ($488) to live on, as prices shoot up.

There have already been reports of changing shop­ping habits at the markets, especially among seniors. Where fruit was purchased by the kilo, they are now selecting two or three pieces very carefully. So much for the ubiquitous bowl of fresh fruit in every Greek house, it is already a casualty of a fearful climate among the people of Greece. The same goes for the purchase of much more expensive imports. Which part of drastically reduced consumption = recession and depression is mis­understood by the ECB and IMF?

The truth is that the people of Greece are the sacrifi­cial lambs on the alter of neo-liberalism and corporate globalization. The high priests of the ECB and IMF Inquisitions have issued their rulings from on high, and the Greeks must pay the penance. And we’re not talking “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” here folks, its more like hairshirts and scourging. So think about this when some­one mentions “Those Extravagant Greeks,” and get your­self sized up for hairshirts, as they’ll be coming your way soon.

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