She sat in front of the television set Monday morning and watched the party of the cleaners who have been hired again by the Finance Ministry. She watched the smiling faces of the 595 women who had been protesting outside the ministry in downtown Athens for 20 months. She watched deputy finance minister Nadia Valavani bringing them sweets and stating “I do not know what they are owed, if they realize themselves that the workers’ movement owes to them in a very difficult time. I don’t know if they realize what each of us personally owes to them ….” and some other stuff Eleni did not quite understood. She didn’t care. She felt tears flooding her eyes and envy biting her heart. She looked around at the small living room full with bedsheets and pillows, and children’s’ clothes. She wished, she was a fired cleaner at the Greek administration, she wished, she a cleaner’s job for 500 euro. She wished, she could have shared the festive mood. But she couldn’t.
Monday morning: Protesting cleaners and Public Administration Minister Katrougalos
Eleni is 55 years old and without income since March 2014, when together with her husband, 59, decided to close down the small business they operated for the last 12 years: a mini market in one of the suburbs of Athens. Until 2010, the mini market had a daily turnover of 1,600 euro. Then the economic crisis came and turnover started to drop day by day, month by month. By middle of 2013, the shop could not cash more than 150 euro per day.
Debts to state and social security had already mounted, the same did the unpaid bills to utilities and suppliers who suddenly demanded payments in advance.
The low middle class world of Eleni and her husband had collapsed. Together with their four children 14-22 years old, the couple moved to the 2-bedroom apartment of her mother.
But Eleni does not give up hope. She attends Computer courses offered by the Municipality, she has applied to enter Employment Agency’s (OAEED) short-term programs for unemployed, funded by the EU.
“Honestly, I don’t care what these programs are and the majority of them are crap,” Eleni says .”Main thing is I do something, I bring some money home and I don’t go crazy.” These programs are scheduled to last 5 months, the attendees receive 450-500 euro per month, payment is done after the courses have ended. Then they are free to return to a labor market that has no job offering for them.
“At our age? We’ve been thrown to Kaiadas*!” Eleni says with a deep bitterness in her voice. She feels still strong to work. She currently seeks one or several jobs as a cleaner in offices or as caregiver to elderly. Her only skills in this “profession” is the experience she had with her own mother when she was severely sick and her cleaning skills as housewife and mother.
“Money has to come in. One of my sons got just recently a grotty part-time job for 250 euro, no security whatsoever, of course. I still have two children at school, third son is still in the army.”
Eleni is just an example of the many unemployed women of the Greek private sector. She does not belong to any union or political party. In a country with no benefits or any kind of aid for the long unemployed. Eleni is just an example of the many jobless middle-aged women who still need at least 10 working years to go into retirement. Eleni is just a number in the ELSTAT statistics showing that 21.5% of women 45-64 are unemployed and have mostly no chance to ever return to labor market.
Eleni has no private connections to powerful or well-situated people to get her a job in the old Greek style. She is left on her own.
And then here is Maria. Divorced. 49 years old, three children 26-29 years old. She got fired from the restaurant she was working for last ten years in 2012. Meanwhile, she lives on food and some basic needs packages from the charities. She occasionally cleans a home here and another there, maybe jumps-in to take care for a bed-ridden elderly in the neighborhood, when the caregiver has day off. She is too young to go in retirement, has not enough social security stamps for access to health care. Her two daughters and the son have low paid jobs and live with their own families. Maria shares an apartment and costs with her partner. She is seriously considering to return to her village that she left when she was 25.
“I could live in the old family home. At least, I can grow some vegetables there, have some chicken… I don’t know… I may find some job in the area as a cleaner or caregiver,” she says adding with a laughter “Or just lay down and die.”
She says too that she got envy about the cleaners and the political and media support they had during their long protest. “Ehm… the cleaners have a lobby. I wish, I had one too,” she says with the same bitterness in her voice like Eleni.
Maria is alone in a huge world with lots of trouble.
Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis described the cleaners’ struggle “as symbol of resistance against the memoranda.”
*Kaiadas was the famous chasm of the Greek Antique where the Spartans executed criminals, traitors, prisoners, sick children and elderly.