Greek workers strike for second time in 2 weeks

Workers walk off the job, responding to a government bill critics say will hurt unions.

    Public transport was closed amid strikes by private sector workers in Greece [Costas Baltas/Reuters]
    Public transport was closed amid strikes by private sector workers in Greece [Costas Baltas/Reuters]

    Private sector workers in Greece have walked off the job for the second time in two weeks as part of a 24-hour nationwide strike to protest against labour reforms planned by the country's recently-elected conservative government.

    Ships stayed docked in port, trains pulled out of service and bank services were disrupted in the strike on Wednesday, while protesting workers marched in the streets of the capital, Athens.

    Greece's largest labour unions, which staged a strike against the same labour reforms on September 24, also planned the most recent work stoppages.

    The unions have accused the government of trying to control or weaken them.

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    They oppose parts of proposed legislation by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis's government that would make it harder to call strikes, create a registry for unions and would allow workers to vote via an online platform on whether to strike, instead of casting paper ballots in person.

    Labour advocates say the measures could compromise private data of union members, which could potentially be used against them. 

    The proposed legislation would also allow changes in some collective work agreements, including a clause forcing unions to justify going to arbitration if collective wage bargaining talks reach an impasse

    Critics say the reforms will not help reduce unemployment in the country of about 11 million people or bring about the economic growth of four percent that the government has promised.

    At about 17 percent, unemployment in Greece is the highest in the eurozone. The bill including the proposed changes is expected to be voted on this month.

    "Those provisions must be withdrawn now," said General Confederation of Workers in Greece (GSEE), the country's largest labour union, which represents about 2.5 million workers.

    Last week, the country's island ferries, along with public transport, hospitals and state schools, faced disruptions during a 24-hour action by the civil servants' umbrella union and other labour groups.

    Before the most recent rallies, turnout had been low at such events in recent years, largely believed to be as a result of fatigue after years of a financial crisis that led to three international bailouts in exchange for pension and wage cuts, tax hikes and unpopular labour reforms.

    Lenders want economy to grow

    Unions were once an influential force in the Greek workplace, but the country's eight-year recession, which wiped out a quarter of its economy, changed that.

    Τhe last conservative administration, in power from 2012 to 2014, effectively eliminated the public sector's right to strike by ordering transport workers and teachers to work on pain of imprisonment. It cited a law that gave the government special powers to protect the public interest.

    Unions now fear that the workers' rights lost during the recession, the worst in a developed post-World War II economy, will now remain suppressed in the name of the country's economic growth.

    Greece exited its third bailout programme in 2018, two years after returning to growth. However, its progress is still being monitored by its lenders, who expect it to achieve an ambitious primary surplus target, meaning the amount of income earned is higher than state spending, of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) annually through 2022 and 2.2 percent a year thereafter.

    The International Monetary Fund (IMF), one of the creditors, has also called for the labour market to be further freed up.

    Mitsotakis's government has promised to negotiate a lowering of the targets with European lenders and wants to distribute a retirement bonus to pensioners next year, as his predecessor did before losing the elections in July.

    He has also pledged to increase wages by reducing social security contributions and ease taxation to attract investors.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies