Athens – Every working day, more than a hundred people crowd around the entrance of the merchant and passenger boats’ reconstruction industry, well known as ‘The Zone’, in the southern suburb of Attiki.
Most of them are unemployed steel workers and torch welders, who wait desperately from the early hours of the morning for an announcement of jobs offered on a daily basis on the ships that dock at the port.
"Tensions often run high among them," says Makis Kistikidis, a steel worker with 32 years of experience in the Zone, amid a scuffle between some workers scrambling to grab a two-day job slot.
"This is not the worst of days," Kistikidis says. "Very often, there are no jobs at all. Many of these people haven’t had more than five or six days of work since the beginning of this year, and no more than 100 working days since 2008."
While public debate is Greece is focused on austerity measures to cut the country’s ballooning budget deficit, little attention has been paid to the societal impact of growing unemployment and how these harsh measures are squeezing salaries of ordinary citizens.
The zone, once a strong industry employing over 5,000 people on a daily basis, is now a vivid example of Greece’s economic collapse. Its slow demise, as Kistikidis explains, began when the lure of cheap labour in China and the Far East propelled ship owners away from the shores of Greece.
The global financial crisis in the last two years has slowed down commerce further. Unemployment has hit the workers very hard.
"Today unemployment in the Zone is above 90 percent," says Kistikidis. "Check out the dates of registration in the unemployment list. You’ll see how many people are stuck here since the beginning of the year or even before that."
Aristedes G, a 58-year-old steel worker, has not had a single day of employment since 2008.
"After being unable to pay up my debt for a bank housing loan, bank authorities confiscated the property and put it on auction," he says.
"Look, this is my food," he says, raising a plastic bag with leftover cheese pies donated to him by owners of the café at the entrance of the zone.
Such stark stories have become all too common, says Kistikidis. He points at a line of men idling around the café. Many of them have endured economic hardships for months. "Atmosphere at home is often bad and many just prefer to spend time outside to avoid the nagging at home," he says.
Four couples known to Kistikidis have separated over the past year, he says, precisely for this reason.
Kistikidis cites the example of one of his unemployed friends, George, a 47- year-old man who was abandoned by his wife after a bank he owed money to evicted him from his house. Kistikidis sought to visit him on a recent evening to boost his morale, but he was in for a shock. George had hanged himself.
In recent months, port workers have joined strike action, taking on the government against reforms intending to deregulate their sector. Kistikidis bristles at companies for bypassing unemployed Greek labour and importing cheap labour from Latvia and Lithuania. The average wage for Greek labourers ranges from 60 to 75 euros per day whereas Latvian or Lithuanian labourers cost about a tenth of that.
"This time we managed to stop them," he says of the government. "But this is the future they want to give us."
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of rich nations, reported recently that unemployment in Greece is expected to rise beyond 14 percent, four percent higher than last year.
Experienced workers are facing hardships, just as much as novices in the market.
The problem is deteriorating work ethics, says Fannis Klissas, a 26-year-old cook. Klissas landed a job a few months ago in a pastry shop in Athens that paid 840 euros per month.
"In the beginning the agreement seemed good. The money was a bit less than what it is usually but in these times you can’t have it all," he says.
A few weeks after he joined his job, he became aware that the owner of the shop was imposing fines on people who made mistakes during production.
"I made a mistake some weeks ago that cost the owner a few euros, but be asked me to pay a fine of 100 euros. When you work overtime everyday, six days per week, you can’t be punished for spoiling a couple of cakes. If you cannot do your job they can warn you and then ask you to leave the job, but this attitude of a boss being able to punish people the way he desires is totally unjustified."
Klissas refused to pay up and was fired.
This culture prevails across the country, and is tolerated only because of mounting economic uncertainties, says Klissas. "People are scared and easily manipulated. Things are getting tougher here. Most of the people put up with things that they should speak against. How can they? Don’t they understand that work should be based on mutual respect and mature human relations, not domination and fear?"
Many observers say that deregulation is the price Greek society has to pay in order to increase competitiveness and cut its mounting debts. Some others predict that hardships resulting from the austerity measures could spark more severe social tensions in Greece.
Afroditi Korfiati, a special investigator with the Labour Inspectorate of the Ministry of Labour, responsible for exposing work place irregularities and resolving disputes between workers and employers, suggests people should stay calm until the impact of austerity reforms materialise.
"There is a general mood that things are deteriorating. But the actual data we are gathering proves that workplace irregularities are just as bad as last year. We are trying hard to maintain checks," Korfiati told IPS.
The measures are also impacting her own department, she says. "We are 18 investigators less than last year. And vacancies aren’t being filled up."
Recently, people took to the streets for the fourth general strike this year. The crowd was smaller compared to previous strikes, fuelling speculation that the fear of losing jobs is compelling people to stay quiet despite the growing frustration.
"It is not fear that keeps people away from demonstrations. It is the lack of any alternative political perspective for the future," Xristina Kopsini, a columnist wrote in Kathimerini, a political daily.