Employed But Not Paid, Some Greeks Voice Protest

Feb 5, 2012
Originally published on February 5, 2012 10:10 pm

The number of Greeks who are out of work has doubled in the past two years, as Greece has suffered its worst debt crisis in recent memory and a crippling recession. But the economy is so bad that even Greeks with jobs haven't been paid for months. It's a widespread problem that's left thousands in a desperate limbo.

One is Dimitris Perakis, the foreign news editor at ALTER Channel, a small private television station in Athens. He's 37 and has worked at the station for 15 years — his entire career in journalism.

"I feel like this is a second home," Perakis says, "because I've spent most hours of the day here."

Perakis loved his job and often worked 12-hour days. But a year ago, ALTER TV fell behind on paying salaries. The company said advertising revenues were down and the owner could no longer manage the station's massive debt.

So the station just stopped paying. It owes more than $14 million to 650 people.

The company owes Perakis more than $22,000. He's getting by these days with the help of family and a bit of savings.

His 32-year-old colleague Maria Michalogiannaki works in ALTER TV's public relations division. She is owed nearly $12,000.

"I live with my younger brother," she says. "Thank God he has a job, and he's being paid regularly so we can cover whatever there is for our house. There are no parents or husband or anyone that's supporting us."

In November, the ALTER workers finally got fed up waiting for their money. They employed a favorite tactic of Greek labor — they shut down the station and occupied it.

Instead of news and talk shows, the workers are now broadcasting demands for pay and allegations that their boss has defrauded them. The messages scroll against a backdrop of dramatic music.

If ALTER TV laid off these workers, the owner would have to pay millions in compensation. Under Greek law, white-collar workers, for example, with 24 years on the job are entitled to 28 months of severance pay.

These days, few employers can afford that, says Vassilis Masselos, a shop owner who has been pressing the government on business reforms.

"It's not a matter of choice, it's a matter of necessity," Masselos says. "They can't find the money to pay employees. They cannot fire them. So they are locked into a sort of limbo that nobody can get out of."

The workers are in limbo, too. Even if they actually get laid off, the Greek state is so broke, it's having trouble keeping up with unemployment benefits.

Stelios Karagrigoriou says he feels like a hostage. The 35-year-old still goes to work every day at the information technology company that owes him more than $11,000.

If he quit, theoretically he could get back pay. But another job? Forget about it. He's sent out 500 resumes.

"You can't find a job in Greece," Karagrigoriou says. "I'm looking for a job in London but even though they reply to my CVs, I wasn't lucky so far. But in Greece, nobody answers."

Back at ALTER TV, the workers say no one has answered them either. They're on the night shift at the station and playing cards. The owner has offered to give them a fraction of their salaries, but they've refused. They believe the owner really has the money to pay them in full and could be ordered to do so by a court.

Since they began their strike, people have been dropping off food for them. They store the lentils, beans, pasta, rice, flour and oil in the virtual studio where TV presenters used to read the weather.

Perakis says he's moved by the outpouring, but he looks sad as he walks upstairs to the empty newsroom.

He sits at his old desk as foreign editor, turns on the computer and scrolls through stories about Syria, Egypt and Somalia.

"It helps me forget about all this for a few minutes and pretend that I'm back at work," he says.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It'll be hard to get Greeks to accept more austerity measures if a deal does come together. The measures already imposed on the country have taken a toll. Besides the unemployment numbers, which have doubled in the last two years, even Greeks who do have jobs might as well be out of work. As Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens, many haven't been paid for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Dimitris Perakis is foreign news editor at ALTER Channel, a small private television station in Athens. He's worked here for 14 years.

DIMITRIS PERAKIS: I feel like this is a second home because I've spent most hours of the day here than in my house.

KAKISSIS: He loved his job and often worked 12 hours a day at it. But a year ago, the company said advertising revenues were way down and the owner could no longer manage the station's massive debt. So, the station just stopped paying. It owes more than $14 million to 650 people. So, how much total does the company owe you?

PERAKIS: Personally, they owe me around 17,000 euros.

KAKISSIS: That's more than $22,000. Perakis is getting by with the help of family and a bit of savings.

MARIA MICHALOGIANNAKI: We are at ALTER channel now and...

KAKISSIS: His Maria Michalogiannaki is owed nearly $12,000.

MICHALOGIANNAKI: I live with my younger brother. Thank God he has a job, and he's being paid regularly so we can cover whatever there is for our house until now.

KAKISSIS: In November, the ALTER workers finally got fed up waiting for their money. They employed a favorite tactic of Greek labor - they shut down the station and occupied it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: Instead of news and talk shows, the workers are now broadcasting demands for pay and allegations that their boss has defrauded them. The messages scroll against a backdrop of dramatic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: If ALTER TV laid off these workers, the owner would have to pay millions in compensation. Under Greek law, white-collar workers, say, with 24 years on the job are entitled to 28 months of severance pay. These days, few employers can afford that, says Vassilis Masselos. He is a shop owner who has been pressing the government on business reforms.

VASSILIS MASSELOS: They can't find the money to pay employees. They cannot fire them. So, they are locked into a sort of limbo that nobody can get out of.

KAKISSIS: And the workers are in limbo too. Even if they actually get laid off, the Greek state is so broke, it can't keep up with unemployment benefits. Stelios Karagrigoriou says he feels like a hostage. He still goes to work every day at the information technology company that owes him more than $11,000. If he quit, theoretically he could get back pay. But another job? Forget about it. He's sent out 500 resumes.

STELIOS KARAGRIGORIOU: You can't find a job in Greece. I'm looking for a job in London but even though they reply to my CVs, I wasn't lucky so far. But in Greece, nobody answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

KAKISSIS: Back at ALTER TV, the workers say no one has answered them either. They believe the owner really has the money to pay them in full and could be ordered to do so by a court. Since they began their strike, people have been dropping off food for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KAKISSIS: Dimitris Perakis says he's moved by the outpouring, but he looks sad as he walks upstairs to the empty newsroom. He sits at his old desk as foreign editor, turns on the computer and scrolls through stories about Syria, Egypt and Somalia.

PERAKIS: It helps me also to forget about all this for a few minutes and pretend like I'm back at work.

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.