Greek unions hit back at minumum wage cuts

By Derek Gatopoulos

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 8:55 a.m. MST

A homeless person sits at the entrance of an abandoned house in central Athens, during one of the coldest days of this winter on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. Late Tuesday, parliament approved new cuts in public sector pensions and government spending required to secure a second package of international rescue loans, while the Cabinet formally imposed deep cuts to the minimum wage, retroactively to Feb. 14.

Petros Giannakouris, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ATHENS, Greece — Greece's largest unions held protests and a work stoppage Wednesday, as the crisis-hit country's coalition government pressed ahead with wage cuts and other austerity measures.

The stoppage disrupted services at tax offices and other public agencies, and a protest was held outside the EU representation building in central Athens.

"Workers' rights are being lost constantly," said Nicholas Kioutsoukis, a senior member of Greece's largest union, the GSEE. "We need elections, so that the public can express its will on these issues."

The GSEE and other unions are also planning a larger protest in front of parliament later, joining Europe-wide anti-austerity protests.

Parliament late Tuesday approved new cuts in public sector pensions and government spending required to secure a second package of international rescue loans, while the Cabinet formally imposed deep cuts to the minimum wage.

Doctors at public hospitals and some private practices are also on a 24-hour strike to protest health care spending cuts.

Unemployment in Greece has roughly doubled since the start of the financial crisis, reaching 21 percent after more than two years of punishing austerity measures.

But the country is still running high annual deficits and is obliged to adopt a new series of cuts before it can receive funds from a new €130 billion ($174 billion) bailout package from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

As part of measures approved Tuesday, a 22 percent cut has been imposed on the minimum wage, which currently stands at €751 ($1,010) per month for private sector workers. For workers under the age of 25, the minimum wage has been cut by 32 percent.

Greece on Wednesday also formally launched a privatization offer for its Public Gas Corporation, DEPA.

The move is part of an ambitious program to raise €11 billion ($14.8 billion) by the end of the year as it seeks to pay down its massive debts.

The government, which holds 65 percent of DEPA, has already held talks on a potential sale with a top official from Russian gas supplier Gazprom Export, who visited Athens this week.

Later, lawmakers are to vote on a new round of cuts that will merge debt-strapped supplementary pension funds — part of a long list of demands made by rescue creditors, who insist the government aggressively sell off or shut down state enterprises.

One of those agencies slated for closure is the Workers' Housing Organization, which assists low-income families with housing placements.

"I have a home loan with subsidies for interest payments from the organization, for which I'm currently paying €750. If the organization closes and I lose the subsidy, the monthly installment will rise to €1,200," said Evagelia Diamanti, a worker and beneficiary of a home loan from the agency.

"There is no money when you have a family with teenagers who have extra needs for school. You understand that our lives and our quality of life drops significantly."

Theodora Tongas contributed to this report.

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