More and more Greeks are mired in debt

Michalis, 45, is a technician who fixes machines. After the factory that employed him closed in 1995, his skills made it easy for him to find a job – for less money – in a manufacturing plant whose owner merged it with four others when he found he could not go it alone. Production costs were reduced to make the product more competitive, and some employees, including Michalis, were made redundant. Now he can only find temporary work. He has a family, so he has had to take two open consumer loans in order to pay the rent. Eleni is 46, a department head in a state hospital in Athens, and has two children. Her daughter was just admitted to medical school in Patras, meaning extra expenditures on rent and food there, costs which were preceded by years of extra coaching to get her there in the first place. Eleni, whose son is doing his military service, is up to her neck in debt to friends and on credit cards. She recently tried to get a housing improvement loan in order to pay some of her debts, but was unsuccessful. She now has a night job in order to pay the interest on her loans. Takis, 35, has worked for eight years in a large business for a monthly wage of 800 euros. Four years ago he decided to rent an apartment (for 360 euros a month) and furnished it with his credit card. He has tried to get a second job, but is still looking. At first he helped his family as much as he could until the credit card payments became too onerous and he took out a personal loan. The result: He is now mired in debt and desperate. A young couple are slightly better off. The wife receives a monthly wage of 1,200 euros and her husband is self-employed. However, his clients often pay him in the form of checks that are post-dated as much as by eight or 10 months. The couple have two children, the youngest of whom is looked after by a baby-sitter while the parents are at work. An unexpected financial problem which, if unresolved would have landed the husband in prison, forced them to take out a personal loan, which they are now repaying by cutting back drastically on everything. An elderly gentleman, a wealthy resident of one of the country’s richest areas, has disappeared. In 1996, he obtained a loan to build a hotel in a tourist area. However, a promise by certain «authorities» that his project would be subsidized under a development law was never kept; he had mortgaged a large piece of property to obtain the loan. At the same time, his 3-year-old grandchild became ill with cancer. As interest rates at the time were very high, his commitments to the bank accumulated. His attempts to prevent the auctioning off of his property were obstructed by several people, including the bank’s legal adviser, who eventually took over the hotel. In the meantime, his grandchild had died. These and countless other stories like them show that while the banks are able to keep providing loans, a large sector of the population – especially in Athens – are unable to repay them. In real prices, wages have stayed at 1992-93 levels, while price increases have risen to parallel those of developed European countries – the average wage is 800 euros, the average pension 400 euros (the farmers’ pension just 130 euros) and the average rent for an 80-square-meter apartment is 420 euros. Meanwhile, real unemployment figures are skyrocketing. «Unemployment is increasing because the small business sector is shrinking. Some just close up shop, others merge their businesses and others take their production abroad in order to reduce costs. All of these solutions involves redundancies,» said a business adviser.