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Greeks protest job cuts, unemployment hits new high

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - From police to garbage collectors, Greek municipal workers took to the streets of Athens for a fourth day running on Thursday to protest against government plans to slash public sector jobs, while unemployment figures hit a new high.

Fuelled by three years of austerity Athens has imposed in return for bailout funds from its foreign lenders, unemployment inched up to 26.9 percent in April, the statistics service ELSTAT said - the highest since it began publishing jobless data in 2006.

Nearly three times as many Greeks are without work compared to late 2009, when Greece plunged into a debt crisis that forced it to seek help from the European Union and International Monetary Fund to avoid bankruptcy.

"There is the constant fear that if you lose your job you'll never find work again and then how will you pay your bills, how will you buy food?" said Androniki Gerasimaki, 54, an office clerk.

The jobless rate, up from 26.8 percent in March, is more than twice the average in the euro zone, which stood at 12.2 percent in May. Young Greeks aged 15-24 are the hardest hit, even though the rate for that age group eased to 57.5 percent in April from 58.3 percent in March.

About 700 to 1,000 Greeks are being laid off daily, ELSTAT estimates.

A turnaround is expected to take time to be felt in the job market, even if a recovery sets in next year as authorities forecast. The central bank projects unemployment will peak at 28 percent before it starts to decline in 2015.

"We could see a social explosion in the fall - no one can precisely predict what society's tolerance limit is," said Dimitris Mardas, an economics professor at Thessaloniki's Aristotle University.

The EU and IMF, which have bailed out Athens with over 200 billion euros ($257 billion)in aid, this week approved a 6.8 billion euro tranche to Greece on condition it sells state assets and pushes ahead with unpopular reforms including slimming down the 600,000-strong civil service.

Trying to fire civil servants is turning into the latest crisis for Greece's shaky coalition government, which must place 25,000 workers into a "mobility pool" by the end of 2013 that gives them eight months to find work in another department or get laid off.

"MERCILESS PLAN"

Athens, which has fallen behind on its reform pledges and missed a June deadline to place 12,500 workers into the pool, has been given until September to do so. Some 4,200 of those will be municipal workers.

Police sirens blared in central Athens for a fourth day in a row as dozens of protesting municipal police in green uniforms rode their motorbikes before parliament, waving Greek flags and raising clenched fists in the air.

Hundreds of municipal workers, among them school guards and garbage collectors, rallied outside the headquarters of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's New Democracy party.

"They (the government) need to be aware of the turmoil and the problems they are creating in Greek society," said Themis Balasopoulos, head of the POE-OTA federation of local government unions which has stepped up action this week. "We're talking about 6,000 families who will find themselves on the street."

The country's two biggest private and public sector unions have called a general strike for July 16, which is meant to coincide with a parliamentary vote on the policies Athens has agreed with its lenders.

Public sector union ADEDY, which is organizing the 24-hour strike with its private sector sister union GSEE, branded the government's plans as "the most merciless plan to devastate labor, wage, and pension rights in the last 30 years".

(Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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