ATHENS – As growing numbers of public workers join the ranks of strikers protesting pay cuts, tax hikes, and the layoff of 30,000 workers Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos blistered them for their actions and said the city was under siege by lawless elements he said were the enemies of democracy.
And with growing anger over more austerity measures and criticism the government has done little to go after tax evaders costing the country nearly $40 billion a year in lost revenues, he said – again – that their names would be released, although his previous promises to do so were not fulfilled. Prime Minister George Papandreou had repeatedly said no workers would be laid off but has relented to pressure from Greece’s international lenders to trim the ranks of the public sector, with as many as 120,000 firings over the next three years as Greece teeters on the edge of default.
“The picture we have seen over recent days is one of lawlessness,” Venizelos told lawmakers in Parliament in Athens, in comments televised live on state-run Vouli TV. “Some believe that occupations, strikes, blackmail, pressure can lead to the satisfaction of vested interests to the detriment of the national interest.”
Greek customs workers declared a 10-day strike starting today, threatening fuel supplies. They are the latest group of state employees to join the wave of walkouts ahead of approval by Parliament next week of new austerity measures that Papandreou needs to get an $11 billion installment as part of a series of $152 billion in rescue loans from the EU-IMF-ECB Troika.
The Federation of Greek Customs Workers will hold five 48- hour strikes, according to a statement posted on the group’s website, which could have immediate and long-term negative effect on exporters and the Greek economy as no shipments will be customs-cleared, the Panhellenic Association of Exporters said in a statement. Public transport was halted today for a third time this week. Workers were joined by taxi drivers who kept cabs home in opposition to the government lifting restrictions on their licenses. Finance Ministry workers continued to blockade the central Athens ministry building and plan to strike for 10 days from Oct. 17, complicating efforts by the government to collect taxes, the news agency Bloomberg reported.
“The state must operate,” Venizelos said. He said blocking access to offices such as the General Accounting Office were actions that struck at democratic rule. Other groups on strike and planning strikes include lawyers, prison workers, port workers, bank employees, doctors and health staff and journalists at state-run television and radio.
But Greece can pull back from the “brink of catastrophe,” Venizelos said as he defended the government against opposition attacks claiming the governing Socialists of PASOK had not taken enough action to tackle tax evasion or to scale back the public sector during its time in power. “The ship has not sunk and will not sink,” Venizelos insisted in Parliament. But he admitted Greece had given up much of its control over economic policy. “Our fiscal and economic sovereignty has been limited.” The government was criticized by the arch Right-Wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA,) in particular for repeatedly increasing taxes but not doing enough to track down evaders.
Venizelos said that the government aims to publish a list next week of major tax dodgers and would step up efforts to obtain from Swiss authorities details of Greeks who have deposited money there. He revealed that data from Greek banks showed that in 2009, 8,667 customers transferred almost 5 billion euros out of the country. Of these, 3,718 declared an annual income of less than 20,000 euros. Greece’s Data Protection Authority is blocking the release of the names of individuals although Venizelos said two months ago they would be known “within days.”
The newspaper Kathimerini reported that Administrative Reform Minister Dimitris Reppas defended the government’s record on public sector reform by saying that since 2009, the number of people employed in the civil service or at local authorities has decreased by about 200,000. Roughly 85,000 were on fixed-term contracts. Reppas also responded to barbs from the major opposition Conservative New Democracy, which claimed PASOK had created 41 new departments and public bodies rather than reducing their number, by saying that 36 of the “new” organizations were created by the merger or renaming of old ones and that the remaining five received no public funding.