Unemployed Greeks reconnect as underground electricians defy law

Kostas Ioannidis, an unemployed metalworker with an ailing mother and disabled wife, can’t afford electricity. So he steals it instead.

Like thousands of other Greeks, Ioannidis had his power disconnected because he couldn’t pay his bills. He owes 2,700 euros ($3,668) and can’t make even the 150 euro monthly payments he negotiated with the power company. When his electricity was cut off in October — for the second time in two years — he illegally reconnected it, jerry rigging the cables.

“I have lost my father and my younger brother and I don’t want to lose my mother,” said Ioannidis, 55, in an interview in his mother’s small apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Thessaloniki. “My mother’s health is more important to me than being legal.”

Losing electricity is another hardship facing Greece’s unemployed, who now number 1.37 million, or 27 percent of the population able to work. There were 257,002 disconnections because of nonpayment of bills in the first nine months of the year, putting the country on pace to surpass last year’s total by 5.4 percent, according to the Regulatory Authority for Energy.

The disconnections have spawned a movement of underground electricians who illegally restore power for themselves and others. About 1 in 10 homes will be reconnected without authorization this year, according to the Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator S.A.

Solidarity committees

The practice is part of a wider pattern of protest and resistance sweeping Greece. Angry citizens have formed solidarity committees that have seized state buildings, distributed food and medicine and helped fuel the rise of the Coalition of the Radical Left, called Syriza, into Greece’s main opposition party.

“If someone doesn’t have food, we try to get them food,” said Athina Teskou, 26, a member of a committee in Thessaloniki that has reconnected more than 30 homes. “If someone doesn’t have electricity, we try to get them electricity.”

HEDNO, the power distribution company, has confirmed 3,500 instances of power theft in Greece and has taken 310 cases to court, Melina Kalampoka, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. The company wants to avoid prosecuting low-income or other “socially vulnerable” families, she said.

“These illegal reconnections have many negative effects and consequences very often unrecognized, starting with the fact that power theft carries deadly risks,” Kalampoka said. “At the same time, these actions are unfair towards all the other legitimate electricity consumers.”

Since 2010, as part of austerity measures demanded by international lenders who committed 240 billion euros to Greece, the country has levied new taxes while cutting services, public salaries and pensions. Increases in the consumption tax helped drive up the price of electricity 59 percent since 2007.

Last year, the income of the poorest 10 percent of Greeks was less than half of what it was in 2009, and 37 percent are below the 2009 poverty line, said Manos Matsaganis, an economist at Athens University of Economics and Business. Fewer than 19 percent of the unemployed receive benefits, while their costs have risen, he said.

“The unemployed and weak were left to their own devices and the burden has fallen on their shoulders,” Matsaganis said.

On Dec. 1, a 13-year-old girl in Thessaloniki died from carbon monoxide poisoning after breathing fumes from a makeshift heating device. She and her unemployed mother were living without electricity, according to the police, who couldn’t confirm whether their power had been cut off for nonpayment.

‘Civil disobedience’

Under such conditions, illegally restoring power is an understandable form of resistance against financial injustice, said Euclid Tsakalotos, an economist at the University of Athens and member of parliament from the Syriza party.

“We see civil disobedience as a bona fide part of European culture,” he said of SYRIZA.

Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, was a center of resistance to the rule of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century. It’s the capital of the northern Central Macedonia region, one of the areas hit hardest by the financial crisis, where unemployment was 29 percent in August. In May 2011, thousands of Thessaloniki residents gathered at the White Tower, a 500-year-old landmark, as part of nationwide anti-austerity protests that helped give birth to the city’s solidarity movement.

Electricity bills became a target of the solidarity committees after the government attached an “emergency” real estate tax to the bills in 2011, rather than tasking Greece’s beleaguered tax agency with collecting it. Nonpayment of the tax could result in power being disconnected.

“The government was looking for a short cut,” Matsaganis said. “If they asked the tax authority to collect the tax, the receipts would be very low. The government considers the collection of this tax a great success.”

The real estate tax is widely known as “haratsi,” after a Turkish word for a tax levied during Greece’s occupation by the Ottomans. After losing a court decision, the government stopped requiring Public Power Co., the utility, to cut electricity for nonpayment of the real estate tax, although the tax debt remains. The company still disconnects households that don’t pay their power bill, and the underground electricians continue to reconnect them.

John Karampetian, 35, a Thessaloniki contractor who first learned to restore electricity as a college student, has hooked up dozens of homes. He doesn’t ask for money and said his help isn’t charity.

‘It’s immoral’

“It’s immoral to cut electric power,” he said. “Electric power is something that everyone on the planet should have for free.”

Too many families are afraid to ask for help, he said.

“I’ve seen people crying because they were ashamed,” Karampetian said. “I’m certain that many people didn’t ask for help because they are ashamed.”

Among those Karampetian helped was Fotini Moisidou and her family of seven. They lived on power borrowed from a neighbor, who passed them an extension cord with three outlets, Moisidou said. They used two for the refrigerator and television, and the third for a lamp that they moved from room to room.

“The children had to study very quickly before the sun set,” said Moisidou, 42. “We had to heat water on the stove for a bath. If you have no electricity, you have no comforts.”

When winter approached last year, a cousin put her in touch with one of Thessaloniki’s solidarity committees, which called Karampetian. He came the same day and restored the power, Moisidou said.

“We knew we couldn’t afford to pay for it,” Moisidou said. “There was no other solution. I was worried about my children.”

Karampetian said he was appalled by their living conditions.

“Seven people in a small house, living without electricity,” Karampetian said. “It reminded me of how people lived after the Greek Civil War,” which ended in 1949, he said.

Life without power was humiliating and depressing, said Moisidou’s eldest son, Pantelis Karipoglou, 22.

“When you’re used to technology and you have no electricity, it’s like cutting your wings,” Karipoglou said.

There are about 7.4 million business and residential electricity customers in Greece, according to the regulatory agency. About 60 percent of the accounts disconnected because of nonpayment are eventually restored, the agency said.

Some families won’t reconnect illegally. Pashalis Pashalakis, an unemployed mechanic in Thessaloniki, has lived for three months without electricity, which was cut after he couldn’t pay a 1,000 euro debt to the power company.

Pashalakis, 59, his wife and two adult children light their home with dozens of candles and use bottles of water, chilled at a friend’s home, in the refrigerator to keep food fresh.

Until the crisis, the family got by on Pashalakis’s salary, he said. The real estate tax forced them into debt, he said.

“It is unfair,” he said. “I have paid for my house; why should I pay again? If they want me to pay, first they should give me work.”

Reconnecting power isn’t without bodily risk. Stavros, 47, an underground electrician who didn’t want his last name published for fear of reprisal, said he was shocked by 360 volts and knocked unconscious for two days after touching faulty wiring.

Stavros said he used to install and maintain mechanical equipment in bowling alleys. He last worked in 2010, and the next year joined the White Tower protests. Soon after, he began helping friends and neighbors restore their power and estimated he worked on more than 100 homes, sometimes three a day.

“I knew a little about electricity,” Stavros said. “Electricity is like a river. You see the river, there’s no water anymore, and you reconnect.”

Most reconnections take place in the lobbies of Thessaloniki’s apartment buildings, which typically have 10 or 12 units clustered around a central stairwell and a cabinet on the ground floor containing the meters. Sometimes the repair is as simple as replacing the fuse, which the utility removes, Stavros said. More complicated jobs require rewiring cut cables. In some cases, when electricity has been repeatedly restored, the power company removes the entire meter and the reconnection becomes more laborious, he said.

Stavros said he asks only to be paid for whatever equipment he needs. His main reward is the feeling he gets from helping people, he said.

“You feel better when you help others and you hope others help you,” he said. “This is fantastic for me.”

Proud metalworker

Kostas Ioannidis, the unemployed metalworker, said he owes 360 euros in property tax as part of his debt to the power company. His electricity was first cut in May 2012, and then restored a week later only after he borrowed 600 euros to pay the debt and start monthly payments of 150 euros. The power was cut again in October when he fell behind.

“I can’t pay 150 when my income is 250,” said Ioannidis, who lives off his mother’s pension and his wife’s disability payments. “I shouldn’t eat?”

Ioannidis, who has an athlete’s build and said he runs two miles a day, worked in foundries in Greece and Germany, where he met his wife. On his mother’s coffee table, he shows off photos of the bronze chandeliers and candelabras he crafted, some for Greek Orthodox churches.

He left his job in Germany in 2008 to care for his mother and brother, who was struggling with drug addiction and who has since died. Unable to find a job, he stopped making payments on his home, which he bought in 1987 with the help of a government- backed mortgage.

While the bank has seized his home, Ioannidis is still liable for the debt. He owes about 22,000 euros, which is also now on his tax bill. He and his wife then moved into his mother’s apartment. He has tried unsuccessfully to persuade his mother to return with them to Germany.

Ioannidis said he expects the government to take possession of his car, a 1995 Seat hatchback, because of his failure to pay down his debt.

“I pay my taxes if I have work but if don’t have work, how can I pay?” he said. “I’m not a thief, I’m not a swindler. I’m asking for a job.”

When his power was shut off a few months ago, Ioannidis reconnected it, using skills he learned while working for the telephone company. He said he didn’t know how to reattach the meter, and as result, he expects any penalty he faces to be stiffer.

“The next step for me is prison,” he said with a shrug. [Bloomberg]

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