When Dimitris Zafiriou brought in a coveted full-time job two years ago, his salary was only half of what he earned for the Greek debt crisis. But after years of struggling, it was a stepping stone.
"Our family now has zero money left at the end of the month," said Zafiriou, 47, a specialist in metal construction infrastructure, with a grim smile. "But zero is better than what we had before, when we could not pay the bills at all."
Greece reaches a milestone in one of the most devastating financial crises to hit Europe. On Monday, the country will officially stop its dependence on more than € 320 billion, or about $ 360 billion in rescue operations, opening a path to a new era of financial independence. The economy is slowly returning to growth and European leaders declare an end to a debt crisis that has almost broken the euro.
But the price of the apparent turnaround in Greece is great. A trailing downturn, coupled with nearly a decade of sharp cutbacks and tax increases to restore the country's finances, has, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, left more than a third of the population of 10 million in the neighborhood of poverty. Household income fell by more than 30 percent and more than a fifth of people can not pay basic expenses such as rent, electricity and bank loans. A third of families have at least one unemployed person. And among those who do have work, the poverty among working people has risen to one of the highest levels in Europe.
"Every society that has lost a quarter of its economy will have serious social problems," said Euclid Tsakalotos, the Greek minister of finance, in an interview. "But things can improve and people can see that they are improving."
Zafiriou has just stepped out of a cycle of constant search and sporadic income. Like many Greeks, his life was turned upside down during a lost decade with unbridled unemployment, steep wage cuts and spiraling personal debts. A new stable economy has led to a return to hiring staff at the Greek construction company where Zafiriou has recently relinquished work. But his monthly compensation of € 800 is well below the € 1500 he earned, at a construction company where he worked for 20 years. When the crisis hit, the company issued the paid employees, first two months and then four – a practice that was common in many companies.
His wife, Sotiria, went unpaid for almost a year in 2013, after the Greek supermarket chain, where she worked, was declared bankrupt. Another company bought it and her monthly salary of € 1,100 was reduced to € 800. Eventually she received about half of what she owed. But Zafiriou said that he had never received nearly € 13,000 in arrears from his old company. The family's accounts quickly became insurmountable. They could no longer pay for electricity or a loan on their modest two-bedroom apartment in Keratsini, a suburb of the working class of Piraeus, near Athens. The only thing that protected them from expulsion – along with thousands of Greeks in similar circumstances – was a law that forbade banks from taking back most of the borrower's primary houses.
The family succeeded in spending on clothes and groceries and stopped the therapy for their daughter Anamaria (13), who has dyslexia. Rarely lacked money, Zafiriou sold all their gold jewelry, except for the cross that was used at the baptism of Anamaria. Things are looking up with his new job. The couple has hired a private teacher for Anamaria and Sotiria Zafiriou no longer has to search for the very best products or meat. The primary goal is to repay all debts of the family as quickly as possible, even if that does not yield at the end of the month.
"Greece is getting better," Zafiriou said. "But that does not mean that everything has changed."
Even after the rescue operation, Greece must continue its belt tightening for years to come, while the creditors monitor their budgetary discipline and progress in the area of structural reforms. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has pledged to alleviate the most affected people with better social support and wages, and spoke of a possible reduction of steep business taxes to encourage rent-raising. Unemployment has fallen to 19.5 percent from 28 percent, but remains the highest in the eurozone. Tsipras wants to build a momentum after the economy grew 1.4 percent last year and slowly recovered from a contraction that was reminiscent of the Great Depression in the United States.
Greece has a budget surplus, minus interest payments on its still mountainous debt. Tsipras aims to sell Greek bonds on financial markets within two years. This view has given the feeling that the crisis can finally decrease.
In the port of Piraeus, near the home of the Zafiriou family, thousands of tourists travel aboard colossal ferries for vacations on the sunny Greek islands after a visit to the Acropolis. Tourism is on the rise and is helping to reinvigorate growth. Small businesses have been created to meet the crowds and construction-related activities are resumed. Other jobs are created as manufacturers move sales outside the Greek market, resulting in an increase in exports, which now represents one third of the economic activity, a quarter before the crisis.
At Bright Special Lighting, a medium-sized maker of industrial and home lighting systems, the owner, Nikos Vasiliou, has tilted half of its production to customers who can afford it, including Google's European headquarters in Ireland and Vodafone stores in Paris. . Vasiliou said he made a profit for the first time since the crisis last year and added 25 employees to his 143-strong workforce. All but 10 have contracts for an indefinite period, on average € 1,100 per month – a decent salary in the current economy.
For the vast majority of employees, however, the Greek labor market remains a rugged landscape. To make the economy more competitive, the creditors of Greece – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – have adopted austerity measures including the suspension of collective bargaining and the easing of the conditions for dismissal. Salaries in the public and private sectors fell more than 20 percent. The monthly minimum wage was reduced to € 586 in 2012, the second lowest in the euro zone, from € 751. Nowadays, a growing share of jobs is a minimum wage. At least half of them relate to temporary or part-time contracts. Although this helps to reduce unemployment rates, many private sector employees now earn less than the poverty wages, according to the OECD, as well as nearly half of Greek households with two children. Others work even more dangerously without a contract, because employers try to avoid overtime and social charges.
It is a sign of the uneasy nature of the recovery of Greece that Zafiriou, the construction worker, even with a coveted full-time contract, remains on his guard. He has been working since June, but many companies have disposed of employees just before their work leave, after which they would have become more difficult to fire. For those who have gone further during the crisis, even reaching that point seems unattainable. On a recent weekday, Georgia Pavlioti, 50, a single mother, sat down with a social worker at Praksis, a humanitarian organization that supports Greeks who have been in trouble.
Pavlioti, a former supervisor at a Greek polling station, never dreamed that she would need social assistance. Her daughter was born at the beginning of the crisis, but by the time her maternity leave ended, the company had shrunk and she could not find another job. Her husband lost his job as a guard. The financial loss forced their marriage, and she asked for divorce – something that more and more Greeks use since the crisis began. Eventually she found informal work for cleaning houses and care for the elderly, including replacing their adult diapers.
"I could not believe I'd fallen that far," Pavlioti said, fighting tears. "It shook my self-image and self-confidence." Praksis offers job guidance, as well as psychological and financial support. It is still not enough. As a single parent, Pavlioti needs state-funded childcare, but is not eligible because her divorce is pending. The longer it stays out of the formal labor market, the harder it is to get back in again. Recently she took a job as a babysitter with flexible hours, earning € 450 a month – enough to pay rent and bills, but not much else. "The end of the rescue operation makes no difference in our lives," said Pavlioti. "We just survive, do not live." – The New York Times