Greece's once record jobless rate of 27 percent may have dropped seven points since the start of the financial crisis, but nearly six in 10 people are stuck in a market dominated by part-time, on-and-off jobs.
At 26 and as a recent graduate of Greece's top school for political science, Julia takes a deep, almost aching drag on her rolled-up cigarette before listing the jobs she has held in recent years.
First came waitressing, then student tutoring, then working with children at an activities center, then playing service representative for a mobile telephone phone company and now taking orders as a call center operator. Not surprisingly, all jobs have been temporary and bad-paying. But worst of all, the gigs have demanded full-time work for part-time terms of employment.
"You're hired for a weekly, 15-hour Friday-to-Saturday job and before you know it, your boss is calling you in, forcing you to work Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays without extra pay, or time off," Julia says.
"You tolerate it for as long as you can because in crisis-crippled Greece," she quips, "that has become the working norm. Employment here is no longer about a lifelong choice with a path and prospects; rather, a living wage that helps you get by — barely."
Greece isn't unique
Dead-end, fixed-term jobs are haunting most of Europe's financially battered south. In recent years, over half of Spain's youth employees have held temporary contracts, compared to two-fifths in Italy. But in Greece, state statistics released this week show a troubling trend: Six in 10 people are stuck in lousy, insecure part-time jobs.
While the trend first exceeded the startling 50-percent mark last year, experts expected the figure to quickly recede as the Greek economy, strangled by seven years of budget cuts and austerity reforms, grew by nearly 2 percent.
But it hasn't, spelling what experts now call "hollowed growth" for a country struggling to claw out of the worst financial crisis to ever hit a European Union member state.
"It's the worst possible predicament Greece and Greeks can find themselves in after nearly a decade of painful sacrifices," says George Kollias, a labor expert at the General Confederation of Greek Workers.
Since the economy skid off the fiscal cliff in 2009, Athens has had to rely on three multi-billion-euro lifelines from international creditors in exchange for strict fiscal retrenchment and reforms that would boost productivity.
"The working assumption," said Kollias was that "new jobs would be created once salaries were sheared and hiring and firing rules were made easier for employers. But ultimately, this has all backfired, creating a monster, market jungle where anything goes."
"Needless to say," he tells DW, "the most vulnerable have been hit hardest."
At age 47 and after two years out of work, George, a trained mechanic has been forced to hop back on his teenage moped and work at a local restaurant, delivering noodles north of Athens in Maroussi, just to make ends meet.
He's paid €4 ($4.90) an hour when the average EU rate is three times higher. He gets no insurance; no holiday bonus and no expenses for costs incurred during work, including petrol and maintenance service for his jalopy. And yet, the stout middle-aged man smiles, "I'm actually pretty lucky. At least I get paid on time and I have the tips as some semblance of daily income."
In the startling statistics released this week, five in 10 Greek workers are owed an average of six paychecks by exploitative employers already paying part-time workers less than €500 a month. Women, meantime, receive 50 percent less than the already appalling rates, potentially giving Greece one of the biggest gender pay gaps worldwide. Only South Korea, Japan and Mexico are said to enjoy greater pay difference.
"I've lost count of how many times I've been dropped from a part-time job while male colleagues have been kept on," says Maria, a 29-year-old unemployed economist who recently walked off a waitressing job for being ordered to work double her initially-agreed four-hour daily shift.
Athens' success story
And yet, officials claim, this is all part of a success story stitched together by the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras as it moves into the final stretch of its four-year term in power, while preparing to break free of austerity and bailouts later this year.
State statistics this month showed that Greece's once harrowing unemployment rate of 27 percent had dipped to about 20 percent after easing off another point last month. But it still remains nearly three times higher than the 8.8-percent EU average.
With the government registering each person who works at least two hours a week as employed, pundits, politicians and people across the country are up in arms, refuting the declining jobless trend. Private labor groups and think tanks put the real figure around at least 25 percent.
Even so, the government says it is making significant strides.
"We're not claiming to have solved Greece's jobless problem," said Rania Antonopoulou, deputy labor minister. "But we are making small steps to reverse the tide."
Among them, she said was increasing surprise inspections at businesses to crack down on illicit hiring and irregularities in the employment sector. With state hiring frozen due to the financial crisis, Greece has only one employment inspector for every 3,000 workers. The EU average is one to 300.
"The numbers speak for themselves," says Julia, taking a final deep drag on her cigarette. "You can sit and hope Greece plays catch-up, or you can pack up and leave for a better future until then."
"That's what I'm planning."