Greece’s 500

500 women have been courageously facing the Greek government and fighting for labour rights.

The protesting cleaners have faced violence from the police, writes Tsimitakis [AFP/Getty Images]

On June 10, a reshuffled cabinet took office in Athens, after the ruling New Democracy/PASOK coalition lost the European Elections of May 25 with a 4 percent  margin from the radical left party, SYRIZA.

PM Antonis Samaras’ revamped coalition, solemnly performed the ritual of being sworn in to office for the second time, when the new ministers and secretaries visited the presidential mansion to receive the blessing of the Greek orthodox archbishop.

Samaras walked out of the ceremony in a rush to call the first cabinet meeting of his newly polished government and journalists  interpreted his fast pace as a signal to ministers to get on the job quickly and be productive.

One of them, the newly appointed minister of public order, Vassilis Kikilias, didn’t lose time. Less than an hour after he took office, riot police cracked down on a protest of the cleaning staff of the ministry of finance.

The protesters are more than 500 women of all ages and national backgrounds who were cleaning tax offices, the ministry of finance and customs services until a ministerial decree, fired them all indiscriminately and permanently.

The austerity rationale behind the decision was spurious because these women were not a fiscal burden – quite the contrary. The privatisation of cleaning services has increased the amount spent in order to keep public working spaces decently clean.

The fate of these 500 women is nothing new in Greece; for years now, and especially since the financial crisis, workers have had to take to the streets to reclaim their rights.

Surviving an acid attack

Overall, privatising services and reverting to temporary contracts for workers has been associated with slavery-like conditions of labour exploitation.

In Greece the most typical such case is the story of the newly elected member of the European Parliament with SYRIZA, Konstantina Kouneva.

People & Power – Greece: The Odyssey

Kouneva, a trained historian, emigrated to Greece from Bulgaria in 2001, because of the financial troubles many countries in Eastern Europe were going through at the time.

In 2003 she was hired as a janitor by private company OIKOMET, which had a contract with the Athenian railway service. Seeing the conditions in which her colleagues were working (low and infrequent pay, lack of insurance, mistreatment), Kouneva entered the janitors union of Athens and soon became one of its leading figures.

From that moment on, she didn’t stop protesting working conditions, struggling for the rights of cleaning staff, who were often ignored by the main trade unions.

She ignored threats against her life and never regretted her decision to continue the fight for labour rights.

One night in December 2008, Konstantina Kouneva was attacked by two men while walking back home in downtown Athens. They threw sulfuric acid on her face and forced her to drink the rest in what could have been a fatal attack.

The Greek police failed to track down the assailants and bring them to justice and they remain unknown and unpunished to this day.

After human rights groups like Amnesty International complained, a court fined the company Kouneva used to work for, concluding that OIKOMET should be held accountable for failing to protect her after she received death treats.

Konstantina Kouneva survived thanks to the medical care she received but she is still undergoing surgery.

In July she will be joining the European Parliament and will take the struggle of Greek workers to the heart of the EU.

A continuing fight

Meanwhile, in Athens the cleaning staff of the finance ministry will continue their fight. Recently a court issued an order to cancel the ministerial decree and rehire these women to their posts but on June 12 the government took the decision to the high court which ruled the order unenforceable until its final judgment in a few months.

This doesn’t change the significance of the cleaners’ story: Fired from governmental institutions some of these women will be hired back at half of their original salaries, no insurance in some cases, and incapable to fight employer blackmail as employees.

This is what the austerity programme is all about.

A lot has been written about the high unemployment figures in Greece due to the crisis but there’s another aspect that affects the working population. Salaries drop, conditions worsen and the negotiating power of workers is annihilated.

500 women are continuing the struggle Konstantina Kouneva paid for with her health, fighting hard to keep the gates that lead to the precarious underclass, closed .

Despite the fact that they have already won their litigation against the Greek state, they are being constantly attacked by conservative politicians, the mainstream media, and riot police. Just recently they were brutally beaten again while trying to reach the finance ministry and demonstrate for, yet another day.

On the other hand, other workers’ groups and the Left are standing by them. The day of the police crackdown, a large demo against the #WorldCup2014 in front of the Brazilian embassy decided to join the cleaners’ protest and show solidarity with their struggle.

The cleaners are the conscience of the working class of our times. Standing on the verge of poverty and exclusion, they fight for all of us.  

Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tsimitakis