Employers itchy over union reaction

The Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry (EBEA) yesterday expressed concerns at the reaction of labor unions against government reforms in the economy, which should become even bolder next year. «We are concerned at the reactions of the unions to the mild changes and reforms being introduced in working hour arrangements, shop hours and banks’ social insurance system,» EBEA president Drakoulis Fountoukakos said at a press conference. According to Fountoukakos, a memorandum to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and other political leaders in view of Karamanlis’s annual keynote economic policy speech at the opening of the Thessaloniki International Fair on Friday notes delays in the reforms, which are potentially disastrous for improving competitiveness. «2006 will be a crucial year, being actually the last year before the start of the new pre-electoral cycle,» the chamber of commerce president said. «Therefore, the decisions and reforms that will be adopted will largely determine the country’s capacity in attaining the goals of fiscal rehabilitation and the creation of favorable conditions for growth by lifting chronic obstacles and dysfunctions.» In the last two Saturdays, shop workers’ unions have staged protests outside large chain stores against the extension of business hours to 9 p.m., and clashed with customers whom they attempted to prevent from shopping. Fountoukakos said EBEA is not happy with the way the country’s wealth is managed, but welcomed the government’s determination to reform vital sectors of economic activity, and the «small steps» being made in reducing taxation, promoting flexible and alternative forms of employment, lifting the permanent employment status in large utilities and public organizations, linking pay with productivity and adopting a new model of education and training. He expressed doubts that the «optimistic» scenario as regards inflation will be realized, and said the rising price of oil will have significant repercussions on the economy. «These consequences can prove even more serious on the balance of payments and the country’s external debt. Retail prices are bound to rise,» he warned. Fountoukakos said EBEA is in favor of a drastic cut in public primary expenses, the effective tackling of tax evasion and real privatizations – as opposed to mere part-flotations of public enterprises that are just designed to pay off public debt. In a long list of other desirable reforms, he included the opening of closed-shops in the professions, the abolition of direct and indirect subsidies, the lifting of all incentives for early retirement, abolition of the minimum wage and collective bargaining agreements in sectors with high unemployment, and the equalization of the terms of employment in the public and private sectors.