By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS, Feb 4 : A one-day strike brought Greece to a standstill today, as trade unions protested against the left-led government’s plans for pension reforms that could help appease foreign creditors, but risks pushing thousands of people further into poverty.
Domestic flights were grounded, ferries stay docked in ports and most public transportation was paralyzed as part of the strike organised by Greece’s main labour unions, GSEE and ADEDY.
Today’s action is the second nationwide walkout since leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras came to power in January 2015 on a pledge to end years of austerity, only to cave in and sign up to new reforms under a bailout package worth up to 86 billion euros, or face expulsion from the euro zone.
Thousands of workers, self-employed professionals, farmers and pensioners were expected to rally in central Athens around midday.
They will later march to parliament, in what is expected to be a test of the government’s resolve as it struggles to convince lenders it is committed to the terms of its third bailout while clinging on to a thin majority in parliament.
The nationwide strike coincides with a key bailout review. The heads of the European Union and International Monetary Fund mission assessing Greece’s progress arrived in Athens this week to discuss the pension plan, tax reforms and bad loans weighing on banks.
The government wants to conclude the review swiftly to start talks on debt relief and convince Greeks that their sacrifices are paying off.
Greece must cut pension spending by 1 per cent of GDP or 1.8 billion euros this year. To protect pensioners who have seen their pensions slashed 11 times since 2010, Athens plans to increase social security contributions.
But unions say the new plan hurts employment in a country where the jobless rate is 25 per cent and forces workers, mainly self-employed, to tax evasion as it links social security contributions to income.
“We cannot live, we cannot survive with what the government is asking from us,” said farmer Socratis Aleiftiras, among thousands of farmers who have blocked roads across the country for the past two weeks.
Under terms of pension reform, their social security contributions will increase almost threefold in coming years.
Although the measures, which include the gradual phasing out of a pension benefit by 2019, are broadly in line with bailout demands, sources close to the lenders said they may not be enough to address a deeper-than-expected fiscal gap.