ATHENS – With rubbish piling up and even blocking some streets after two weeks of a strike by rubbish collectors, public health authorities said the government might bring in private companies to pick it up, signaling what could be a toughening of its stance. The garbage collectors are blocking the city’s main landfill and have been left alone as authorities are reluctant to call in law enforcement.
Health Minister Andreas Loverdos issued an emergency order, to be published in the next Government Gazette, for the trash to be collected immediately as it poses a public health risk and for charges to be leveled against those who have created the situation, the newspaper Kathimerini reported. The government regularly vows crackdowns against strikers but rarely follows up.
Still, Interior Minister Haris Kastanidis said that the government might employ private firms to tackle the problem. “We obviously need to defend public health, and this means bringing in private contractors if necessary,” Kastanidis told Flash Radio. He claimed a private sector solution to garbage collection would cost the state a third of what it currently pays to public garbage collectors, who, like many other sectors of public workers, are angry over pay cuts and tax hikes ordered by international lenders as a condition of Greece receiving $152 billion in bailout loans to prevent bankruptcy. The Health Ministry may declare rubbish that has been uncollected during a municipal workers’ strike a health hazard and employees may face jail terms of three months if they don’t immediately return to work, Skai news reported on its website, citing Deputy Health Minister Paris Koukoulopoulos.
Athens first instance prosecutor Eleni Raikou ordered an investigation into the garbage problem and appealed to mayors in the broader Attica area to help as much as possible to avert a public health crisis. Raikou ordered the probe following several warnings by health experts, including Tzeni Kremastinou, the head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO,) who said that some 6,000 tons of trash that have accumulated on the streets of the capital constituted a “ticking time bomb” for public health.
Deputy Interior Minister Paris Koukoulopoulos announced that garbage collectors who prevent collection and block landfills will be arrested, taken to court immediately and face a three-month prison sentence. Speaking on SKAI television on Oct. 14, Koukoulopoulos noted that an emergency order on health grounds was expected to be issued by Loverdos and that trash collection would resume immediately.
The deputy minister said that municipal garbage collection workers will not be paid given that no services have been provided and defined the workers’ union tactics as a balancing act between the Camorra and the Mafia. That followed Kastanidis’ warning.
Vassilis Polymeropoulos, head of the City of Athens garbage collection workers union, warned that if the government brings in private companies to collect garbage this would lead to “blood on the street,” and the fall of the government. Speaking on SKAI radio, Athens’ Mayor Giorgos Kaminis asked garbage collectors to think of their future and show self-restraint. He was among those assaulted in a meeting held at the Central Union of Municipalities and Communities of Greece on Oct. 13. Chief Athens prosecutor Eleni Raikou ordered a preliminary examination regarding the incident in which Neapoli-Sykeon Mayor Simos Daniilidis was also assaulted. Meanwhile, about 22 illegal landfills around Attica were reportedly being used to deposit garbage during the strike.
The situation in Thessaloniki was also growing as municipal garbage collectors have created similar problems by blocking the main landfill there. A local prosecutor ordered police to arrest and take to court those who continue to block the Mavrorachi landfill. A small group of municipal workers continued their blockade of the landfill though staff at the accounts department of City Hall in Greece’s second lartest city reportedly returned to work after two weeks of go-slow action, but only to collect their pay checks — a move Mayor Yiannis Boutaris blasted as “extremely unethical.”