Nobody here or anywhere else knows how long or how bad the economic crisis will be. The only thing that’s certain is that it will have serious consequences at a social level as people lose their savings, their assets and their jobs. Even the most developed societies are dreading what this may lead to, as greater numbers of unemployed place unprecedented demands on social security and welfare systems that will be receiving fewer funds as tax revenue decreases due to lower production and consumption. Greece, which has enjoyed relatively high employment, has a large informal sector and active family networks, has managed to avoid the worst consequences of such crises in the past. But, for the very same reasons, if this crisis lasts longer than others, it will find Greek society with its institutions unprepared to deal with the turmoil that is coming.

When economic austerity and high unemployment hit a society, two of the most important allies of the lower income groups and the unemployed are the unions and the Labor Ministry’s vocational training programs. But these programs – which have cost millions of euros in national and EU funds – have stood out for their failure to raise the standard of labor. The unions, too, for the most part, have been unable or unwilling to keep up with the challenges of the time. Immigrants, for example, make up a large part of the labor force but are woefully unrepresented by unions.

Constantina Kuneva, a 44-year-old Bulgarian immigrant who was general secretary of the Attica cleaners’ union, was seriously injured when unidentified assailants threw hydrochloric acid at her face and forced her to swallow some of it. Her plight focused attention on the woes of cleaners who are forced to work for longer hours and for less wages and benefits than stipulated by law. The police were initially indifferent to the assault, moving into action only after protests drew publicity. Behind the drama of the assault, however, is the tragedy of people who are so in need of employment that they will work for less than the minimum wage and for reduced benefits – just as long as they can get a job. And the unions, pretending to live in an ideal world where everyone has a full-time job for full wages and full benefits, have turned a blind eye to the harsh reality of the labor market. They ignore the fact that large groups of people in precarious occupations (including temporary and part-time workers,) suffer in silence without representation because the unions don’t want to acknowledge the reality of second-class workers.

So adamant are the unions in their rejection of anything new that the government, afraid of fueling their ire, is the first to quash any proposal by employers for reduced wages or benefits for first-time employees, a step that could help them get a foot in the door of the labor market. As vocational training programs (many of which were run by unions) have not lived up to expectations, it would appear that the plight of the unemployed (whether following dismissal or due to the failure to land a first job) is not a priority for our unions or government. As the economy, like society, cannot simply stop, it is increasingly likely that we will see an increasing number of people forced to work in the twilight zone between unemployment and full employment. Whether this new class will be represented by unions that will be able to avert exploitation and channel anger and despair into constructive solutions will – to a great extent – determine the stability of our society. This is the responsibility that the unions and the government will have to shoulder together.

Editorial in AthensPlus, March 6, 2009

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