As international lenders hammer out the tough austerity measures Greece must take to escape a debt crisis shaking the euro zone, more and more Greeks are losing jobs with no visible recovery in sight.
"No matter where I ask for a job, I am turned down. I don't know how to feed my two children anymore," said Thanassis Avgeris, 46, who lost his construction job more than a year ago.
Waiting in the queue at an Athens branch of the state Unemployment Agency, Avgeris is one of many suffering the effects of the near collapse of the construction sector, which had boomed before the 2004 Olympics.
Figures released on Tuesday showed the January jobless rate jumped to a six-year high of 11.3 percent from 9.4 percent in the same month last year. A total 567,000 jobless were reported, a 22 percent year-on-year increase.
"Conditions in the labour market are deteriorating sharply," said Nikos Magginas, economist at the National Bank of Greece. "Current trends suggest that the average unemployment rate will exceed 12 percent in 2010," Magginas added.
Female unemployment stood at 15 percent in January, compared with 10 percent in the euro zone. Youth joblessness hit 30 percent, compared with 20 percent in the euro zone.
Deprived of cheap bank funding in the aftermath of an international credit crunch, construction jobs were the first to go. But as the crisis deepened with the economy shrinking 2 percent in 2009, even highly skilled people started losing jobs.
"What can I do at this age? Who is going to hire me?" said software engineer Miltos Alikaridis, 56.
Aliskaridis, father to one child, lost his job in February when the insurance company he worked for went bust, the latest victim of a string of failures in the industry.
Like many in the Mediterranean country of 11 million, he blames corrupt politicians and businessmen for his agony. "The thieves are not behind bars and we're out on the street."
Companies considered large by Greek standards are shutting down. Interattica, one of the country's biggest couriers, closed down in April, wiping out more than 200 jobs.
More than 150,000 public sector jobs were created over the past five years. The socialist government in power since October has tried to cut the public sector to plug fiscal holes.
Prime Minister George Papandreou has slashed part-time workers from the state payroll and frozen the hiring of career civil servants as part of austerity steps to avert bankruptcy.
Despite the fiscal woes, Labour Minister Andreas Loverdos announced last month a programme to save 120,000 private sector jobs by temporarily paying part of workers' social security contributions out of the government's pocket.
The European Union and the IMF, which have offered to bail out Greece with 45 billion euros this year, are demanding tough spending cut and reforms in exchange for helping Athens avoid defaulting on its 300-billion-euro debt.
But labour unions oppose any austerity measures. Wildcat strikes and street protests have become regular events.
ADEDY, the country's main civil service trade union, is holding a 24-hour strike on Thursday, its fourth this year. GSEE, the main private-sector trade union, has warned it will also go on strike next month.
Greece has a strong tradition of street protest. Such social unrest could derail a EU-endorsed economic reform plan.
Economists and credit rating agencies are watching closely to see how far government belt-tightening will undermine an already shrinking economy and to assess whether a so-far fairly stoic electorate is becoming more restive.
"We won't get out of the crisis with their policies. We shouldn't pay, politicians must pay," said Lila Mastora, 48, the owner of a dying florist shop who is looking for other work.
"Regardless of what they take from us, it's never enough. I will react, take to the streets."
ReutersLast Mod: 20 Nisan 2010, 19:39