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For Greeks, burgeoning gig economy means low wages, long hours

EconomyJul 04, 2019 03:41PM ET
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By Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - When he set up his own business washing boats and cars on the Greek island of Skyros nearly a decade ago, 42-year old Nikos Vourliotis was a young man with dreams and aspirations.

Then the reality of Greece's austerity regime kicked in. A stipulation by debt-laden authorities that he should pay his annual tax bill upfront killed the business. Now, he has joined the growing ranks of Greeks in a precarious "gig economy" working long hours for low wages and no job security.

"For now, I can only think of the present," said the father-of-two after delivering burgers and souvlaki by moped in the coastal Athens suburb of Glyfada.

"When you have two children, you are forced to look at your present to make sure that you meet your obligations, that you don't have debts."

In August, Greece will mark the first anniversary of being free from the close financial supervision of lenders whose 280- billion-euro ($316-billion) lifeline kept the country afloat for nine years after a debt crisis brought it to its knees.

Even now, millions of Greeks face unemployment or low-paid jobs and worsening working conditions. No wonder jobs are a key battleground in the campaign ahead of Sunday's general election.

RIVAL JOBS PROMISES

One in two young people in Greece are unemployed. According to a survey by MRB in late 2016, roughly half of Greeks aged 18-35 lived on financial support from relatives.

As part of European Union-prescribed reforms aimed at making the economy more competitive, Greece in 2012 allowed flexible wage contracts to pay workers the minimum possible, abolished collective bargaining and curtailed powers of trade unions.

As permanent posts dried up, many Greeks resorted to part-time or temporary jobs on flexible contracts, mainly in tourism and in delivery services.

Vassilis, a 24-year-old university graduate who has been delivering food for two years, is paid by the hour and earns roughly 300 euros a month - less than half the official minimum wage of 650 euros. He relies on tips to boost his income and, like many Greeks his age, cannot afford to live on his own.

"When I took this job I imagined I would work for a few months, get a bit of money then move on ... I never expected to stay here this long," he said.

Now, he said, he makes no plans for the future.

The conservative New Democracy party, leading in polls by 10 points over ruling leftist Syriza party, has promised to invest in creating well-paid jobs with decent benefits.

The outgoing government meanwhile hopes voters will reward it by upping the minimum wage by 11 percent, and reinstating collective bargaining.

Telecoms engineer Panagiotis Mitrogiannis, 39, works in a supermarket. On 780 euros a month, he considers himself lucky, but says he lives from one pay cheque to the next.

"Thankfully I have my parents. I don't have other mouths to feed either, so I can scrape through," he said.

SQUEEZING PEOPLE DRY

Union representatives say changes have skewed the job market irrevocably and many unscrupulous employers have taken advantage of that.

"It's all about turning the young generation into a generation which will have an hour at which they will start work, but no clock-off time," said Nikos Papageorgiou of the Athens union of restaurant workers.

"Most workers are on flexible contracts, not knowing when they will work, if they will work and how much they will earn."

According to government data, more than 10 percent of 37,270 businesses inspected in Greece last year had uninsured workers. In addition to low wages, unions cite unrecorded hours, pressure on workers to hand back part of their salary under the table and other employer malpractices.

Employers union SEV has condemned abuses by employers and says it wants to fight against undeclared labor.

"Undeclared work is not only large in scale but it increasingly takes the form of "semi-declared work," SEV told Reuters. "The proactive treatment of undeclared or semi-declared work should be an integral part of an integrated national strategy."

In the northern city of Thessaloniki, four reports of battery by employers were reported over a five-month period, union officials said.

"It appears the workers weren't as efficient as they (employers) would have liked," commented Margarita Koutalaki, a union representative.

For Greeks, burgeoning gig economy means low wages, long hours
 

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