Greeks are EU’s champion workers

Greeks are the hardest workers in the soon to be 25-member European Union, according to Eurostat figures. With an average workweek of 44.4 hours, Greeks are ahead of Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic, where the average is 43 hours. Real working hours are increasing steadily, although this is not purely a Greek phenomenon but one that applies to the entire developed world, as first observed in the US in the early 1990s. In Europe, the view prevailed for a long time that the strong labor movement and social security system would not permit this to happen here. However, the Second European Survey on Working Conditions 1995-99 found the same tendency in Europe. In 1998, the Jospin government established the 35-hour workweek in France, yet academics and researchers began to realize that reducing legal working hours could easily be accompanied by an increase in real working time. Associate Professor S. Mavroudeas of Macedonia University’s Economics Department and PhD candidate A. Ioannidis, who studied Greeks’ average real work hours, found that these had been increasing steadily since 1985. The myth «When you accept flexible work hours as a given, it is difficult to react to the effects it has on daily life,» said a magazine staff member who works 10-11 hours daily and whose monthly salary is 800 euros. «Until just a few years ago, there was a ‘job description.’ Now they hire you to do a certain job and you end up doing five different ones. When a company is not doing well, the first thing it does is reduce costs, and that means labor costs. A job previously done by 10 people now has to be done by five. And this number is not increased even if the company’s performance improves and the amount of work increases.» This particular employee, who bears the title «publication supervisor,» does just about everything. He files his own stories, supervises other journalists, as well as the page-making section, and is head of sales. Why doesn’t he look for a better job? «There is a myth – or a reality – that elsewhere things are the same as here. There is a general feeling of defeatism, that nothing can change,» he said. A.K. works as salesman in a large bookstore. He is 36 years old, has a masters’ degree and his monthly salary is 550 euros. So he is forced to moonlight in order to earn another 250 euros per month. His social life has been restricted as a result, but he is full of optimism. His colleagues have equally low wages, usually more than one job and university degrees that are going to waste. «One of them is giving private lessons, another is doing translations, another is working as a doctor’s receptionist,» he said. B.M. is the divorced mother of two children and works as a saleswoman in a business that is open all week. The 40-hour week exists only on paper. «We work weekends without getting any extra social security payments for it, or overtime pay. There are very few staff members and a lot of work. We have to answer the phone, sell, work at the cash register, order supplies, prepare deliveries, deal with returned goods and organize the department, all at the same time. Sometimes, we even have to help out in the warehouse when there aren’t enough staff there,» she said. A.M., aged 38, is a chemical engineer and partner in a design firm. His monthly salary is 2,500 euros, but he works 11 hours daily during the week as well as usually one day on the weekend. «The main problem is the uncertainty in the Greek market and the outrageous delays in payments. Competition has increased in the past eight years. Today you’re here, tomorrow you’re not. At the same time, we are continually on edge as to when we are going to get paid, so that we ourselves can pay our staff. And I am not talking about small firms like ours with 30 staff members, but firms with a staff of 150-200. Payments can be delayed by anything from six months to a year, so we are forced to take any work that comes our way. The market has also opened up and we are dealing with major foreign firms with thousands of employees and huge experience. Our comparative advantage is that we are better acquainted with local conditions and are a cheaper work force. So we act as contractors for them.» The causes Changes in recent years in work conditions are due to a number of reasons – the «liberalization» of labor, the firms’ decision to take the easy way out by firing staff when profits are reduced, job insecurity due to high unemployment, globalization – that have brought major firms knocking on the doors of smaller, local ones. At the same time, 77 percent of working Greeks are under continued pressure due to low incomes, and are under psychological pressure because of job insecurity and competition. The corresponding average among the 15 member states is 46.9 percent. In the survey by Mavroudeas and Ioannidis, it is clear that for many categories of workers and jobs, even the traditional eight-hour day is a distant dream, as real working hours are much longer. Eurostat puts the average workweek in Greece for 2003 at 44.4 hours. According to the Greek survey however, this has occurred in tandem with part-time work, moonlighting and more overtime.