Municipal garbage collectors Thursday started the long and unpleasant task of picking up thousands of tons of trash that has been rotting under the sun for the past two weeks after unionists decided to call off strike action demanding job security.
As fears of a threat to public health spiked Thursday amid an intensifying heat wave, the union representing protesting workers, POE-OTA, announced that they would be ending their action. The decision came on the day of a 24-hour strike by POE-OTA workers who pressed on with the walkout despite having wrested concessions from the government earlier in the week.
Local authorities in Athens, Thessaloniki and other cities are now expected to rehire thousands of sanitation workers whose short-term contracts have expired.
According to sources, the Interior Ministry is on Friday to issue a circular to local authorities across the country, calling for the implementation of an amendment approved in Parliament on Wednesday which foresees the extension of workers’ short-term contracts. It remains unclear how POE-OTA will react, however, if municipalities end up hiring fewer than the 6,150 people currently employed on short-term contracts in sanitation.
Meanwhile contract workers have to clean up the mess in the streets. According to Giorgos Broulias, deputy mayor of Athens, it will take at least four days to pick up all the trash. “It will then take even more days for parts of the capital to be washed down with cleansing agents and disinfectants,” he told Kathimerini.
Employees have been instructed to first collect the trash which has decomposed and is contributing to the rancid smell. Other refuse such as discarded furniture and household appliances will be left until later. “A couch is not a public health risk,” Broulias said.
In Thessaloniki, where the local authority has 700 staff on short-term contracts, the cleanup had gotten under way on Wednesday after Mayor Yiannis Boutaris threatened to outsource trash collection to a private firm. Boutaris said he believed the northern port will be cleaned up by Sunday night.
The government appeared relieved with the decision by unionists on Thursday after several tense days that prompted Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to step in on Tuesday in a bid to break the deadlock.
The clash with POE-OTA was the first large-scale, protracted dispute between the leftist-led government and labor unions and its resolution provided some respite to the government, which had considered a last-resort scenario of issuing a judicial decision to force employees back to work amid warnings of a growing risk to public health and the country’s crucial tourism sector.
Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura had warned earlier in the day that there would be “ugly consequences” if the situation is not resolved quickly. And earlier this week, representatives of the tourism sector warned that piles of garbage would discourage foreign visitors even as authorities have predicted a record year for the Greek tourism sector with an estimated 30 million arrivals.