OPINION

Playing it safe in the public sector

There is an e-mail doing the rounds at the moment titled «Why I am proud to be Greek.» It contains a number of observations, some funnier than others, about the odd quirks and traits that Greeks supposedly possess. One of these is the assertion that «we always moan about the public sector but everyone seeks to get a job in it.» This paradox is also a telling indication of where this country finds itself in the early part of the 21st century, with the number and scope of challenges it faces growing by the day. Two of the biggest scandals Greece has had to deal with in the last few months – the Zachopoulos affair and the allegedly doped-up weightlifters – had at their heart the lure of financial security that the public sector offers. Sources said this week that former Culture Ministry general secretary Christos Zachopoulos testified that he was essentially driven to suicide by his assistant Evi Tsekou and a group of lawyers who were blackmailing him. It seems that Tsekou’s main demand was that she be given a permanent position at the Culture Ministry. A «job for life,» in other words, in return for not making public a video showing Zachopoulos cheating on his wife with her. It begs the question as to whether Tsekou would have enjoyed a brighter future had she taken all the time and energy she invested into allegedly hatching this plot and put it into finding a job elsewhere. Meanwhile, speculation suggests that the underlying factor in the alleged doping of 11 Greek weightlifters was the rewards they could secure by winning medals at the Olympics and other major championships. Not lucrative sponsorship or endorsement deals which would require planning, initiative and a good deal of effort; no, in this case the rewards are an honorary military rank and the guarantee of a monthly salary from the state along with a generous pension. Now the government appears to be rethinking the rewards that it offers to successful athletes. However, changing the law on these perks will do nothing to slow down the public sector juggernaut that comes careering down the road we all have to travel on, leaving an irate population spluttering in the cloud of dust it leaves behind. This week’s public transport strike highlighted the impunity which the wider civil service enjoys. Four in 10 Athenians were forced to find alternative ways of getting around or abandon their journeys altogether because employees walked off their jobs in support of two tram drivers who were sacked in March. One of the drivers in question was sacked because he allegedly refused to take a blood test to prove that he was not drunk after asking to be replaced in the middle of his shift. The other driver was sacked after insisting that his mother accompany him due to the psychological problems he suffered following a serious accident. If these reports are true, it is outrageous enough that the entire public transport system should grind to a halt due to a protest against these men being sacked, but it is even more scandalous for the head of the tram drivers union, Christos Katsas, to state, «The fact that one of the drivers did not wear the company shirt or that he wanted his mother in the cabin with him sometimes should not be cause for him to be fired.» French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco could never have imagined his claim that «a civil servant doesn’t make jokes» would ever be disproved in such a brazen manner. Then again, Ionesco did write for the Theater of the Absurd. So what can we expect next? The mother of an Olympic Airlines pilot going around the airplane with her Tupperware and handing out meatballs to passengers for lunch? Or maybe the father of a bus driver putting commuters in their place when they criticize his son for going over too many potholes? The heads of the unions for the other modes of transport said they were striking because they fear that these sackings signal the beginning of a wider cull of employees in their sector. The evidence for this claim appears scant. For instance, the last person who lost his job on the Kifissia-Piraeus railway was in 1991, so it hardly seems as if public transport employees are in a high-risk position for losing their jobs. On the other hand, given the lack of sackings in the past, two people being fired in a month must seem like a pogrom to them. The idea that getting a job in the civil service is a wise career move is deeply entrenched in the psyche of most Greeks, as the e-mail correctly observes. Despite pressure on the government to trim the public sector and the benefits offered to civil servants, there are still many people seeking to enter this supposed utopia. This week there was also a documentary on television about the current crop of youngsters entering the job market; the so-called 700 generation because that is how many euros their monthly salary is likely to be. The premise to this program, and it is one that is repeated frequently in the media, is that the job market is unfair on these youngsters because it pays them too little at a time when costs are spiraling upward. But this argument somehow supposes that previous generations were welcomed into the job market with a hearty handshake, a slap on the back and a suitcase full of cash. Clearly, this never happened and the subliminal message that is still being transmitted to Greek youngsters is that the odds are stacked against them in the private sector and it is hardly worth taking the risk. The public sector, however, offers a safe alternative and a carefree future. The idea of a «risk society» developed in the 1990s with theorists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck suggesting that society was developing in a way that allowed it to deal with risk and the insecurities of the future. «The notion of risk is central in a society which is taking leave of the past, of traditional ways of doing things, and which is opening itself up to a problematic future,» wrote Giddens. This is exactly the juncture at which Greece finds itself but the defense against financial insecurity for a great number of people is to head for the shelter of the public sector. Creating another generation who are afraid of failure, afraid of meeting risk head-on and want to look for the easy way out should not be a source of pride for any Greek.