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Greece's census

August 19, 2010

Much of Greece's cost-cutting measures have been targeted at the public sector, which employs far more people than official figures indicate. Now, the government has finally managed to count every person it employs.

Man carries a file of folders relating to Greece's budget cuts
Greece's bloated public sector employs 768,009 peopleImage: AP

After ten years of debate and preparation, Greece has undertaken the tedious task of counting all its public sector employees as the prospect of more austerity measures looms in the background.

The count, deemed a public sector census, concluded at the end of last month that 768,009 Greeks are on the public payroll. That totals 17.5 percent of the working population of 4.4 million, notably higher than Germany's 11 percent but lower than France and the United Kingdom's 21 percent.

Dimitris Polichroniadis, a 45-year-old elementary school teacher, said his earnings have been cut by a fifth, and that record levels of inflation have eaten up much of the rest. He registered with the census at the finance ministry, although he was against the idea in the first place.

Papandreou gestures during a debate
Papandreou has blamed previous governments for creating Greece's problemsImage: AP

"In my opinion, the public servant census is just an excuse to make way for a massacre in the labor market, and to create hostility toward the supposedly lazy public servants," Polichroniadis told Deutsche Welle. "Thousands of people will lose their jobs, also in the public sector."

Politics as usual

The prospect of further cuts in public sector pay and employment is in the minds of many in Greece. It was one of the few European economies that did not escape recession in the second quarter of 2010, with a 1.5 percent contraction, and it continues to struggle to keep its revenue on a par with its spending.

The Socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou has largely blamed previous governments for driving up the public deficit and bringing on Greece's financial and economic crisis. But many Greeks, Polichroniadis included, believe Papandreou's government is no different.

Public sector workers march on strike
Public sector workers have staged angry strikes to protest wage cutsImage: AP

"In the past, all other governments followed the same policies, abusing the state for their own gain," he said. "Every party simply gives their own people state jobs so they're sure to get their votes in the next election."

Election gift-giving

Leandros Rakintzis, 72 and general inspector for the public administration in Greece, admits that corruption and deception has exacerbated the problem. He said he came across several irregularities in his work searching for corruption and misuse of office.

"Shortly before the 2009 elections, just to name one example, the Athens public transit authority posted 72 immediate openings for tram operators," he said. "In the end, 150 people got a position. That was a clearly an election gift."

Rakintzis said he supports the census, but is puzzled at how the government could go so long without knowing exactly how many people were on its payrolls.

Hurdles to jump

Euro bills and coin atop EU flag
The census was a condition for Greece's EU-IMF loanImage: picture alliance / dpa / DWMontage

According to Konstantinos Argirou, who ran the public sector census for the interior ministry, there were several obstacles standing in the way of the census.

"For ten years we've been discussing how to conduct the public sector census," he said. "But it's not that simple. The finance ministry can't give us important documents, other departments still don't have electronic data storage, so we've had to jump a lot of hurdles to get this far."

A definite motivating factor for starting the census was the 110-billion euro ($141 billion) loan put together by fellow eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund last May. The two institutions made the census, along with large budget cuts and massive public restructuring, a condition for the loans disbursement.

Twenty billion euros have already been disbursed, and the European Commission on Thursday recommended that another 9 billion also be released when eurozone finance ministers meet on September 7.

Author: Jannis Papadimitriou, Athens (acb)
Editor: Susan Houlton