Top unionist says employers try to push ‘hidden’ agenda

Relations between the country’s biggest union, the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE), and the most prominent employers’ association, the Federation of Greek Industries (SEV), are at their lowest point in over a decade, as highlighted by yesterday’s attack on SEV by GSEE President Christos Polyzogopoulos. At a press conference hastily called yesterday, ahead of today’s annual SEV meeting, Polyzogopoulos attacked remarks made by SEV Chairman and Executive President Odysseas Kyriakopoulos last Thursday that Greece’s unemployment rate, currently just under 10 percent, could soar to 18 percent. «There is a serious danger of the jobs being lost not being replaced by new opportunities and unemployment soaring from 10 percent to perhaps 18 percent,» Kyriakopoulos had said, citing a climate unfriendly to business, strategic mistakes in vocational training with EU funds and problems in education that affect competitiveness and employment. He was commenting on the decision by Swiss-German company Schiesser Pallas to shut down an Athens garment factory, which employed 500, due to soaring labor costs. Polyzogopoulos did not attack Kyriakopoulos personally, but SEV as a whole, saying its positions on unemployment were not backed by any sober research. These comments have also been made by angry ministers in the past few days, but Polyzogopoulos went further, saying that SEV’s positions were «suspect, because they aim at influencing political developments and help enact measures unfavorable to working people.» Polyzogopoulos said SEV has an agenda, in which the main goals include the abolition of the minimum wage and the consequent undermining of the collective agreement on wages, the introduction of insurance to employees paid by the hour, the limitation of compensation paid to laid-off employees and cuts in overtime costs. Officially, none of SEV’s officials has asked for such drastic measures, although, privately, some have supported one or the other. GSEE is actually willing to discuss limitations on overtime, but wants employers to agree to a 39-hour workweek, down from the current 40 hours. This SEV adamantly opposes. SEV and GSEE have been extremely wary of each other even at the best of times, but have reached a level of understanding since 1992, when then GSEE president, and later Socialist minister, Lambros Kanellopoulos, signed with SEV a landmark two-year collective agreement on wages, in effect committing himself to two years of peace in labor relations. By doing so, he angered many in his own party, then in opposition, who regarded him as a traitor. Polyzogopoulos said that saying that Greece was a high labor-cost country was impermissible and added that Greek employees could not migrate to lower-cost countries, «the Asian Europe, dear to employers,» he said disparagingly. Citing Eurostat data that the unit labor cost in Greece increased 1.2 percent in 2002, compared to 0.4 percent in the European Union as a whole, he said that costs could not be squeezed further and again attacked businessmen. «They are solely to blame for the dearth in investment in recent decades, non-performing businesses and badly used loans they got on favorable terms,» he said.