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'Haven of waste': Cash-strapped Greece pulls plug on state broadcaster

Under pressure from its creditors to cut public employment, the Greek government said Tuesday that it was closing down its state-run television and radio broadcaster.
Image: Greek government announced state's tv closure as of Tuesday night
ERT journalist Ellie Stay shakes hands with a member of the TV crew Tuesday after the government announced the broadcaster's closure.Alkis Konstantinidis / EPA
/ Source: The New York Times

Under pressure from its creditors to cut public employment, the Greek government said Tuesday that it was closing down its state-run television and radio broadcaster, idling 2,900 people — less than 1 percent of the public work force — and outraging the country’s powerful labor unions.

Describing the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, as a “haven of waste,” a government spokesman said ERT, which went off the air at 11 p.m. local time, would reopen soon as a “modern state organization” with a fraction of the current staff.

ERT employees, who were among the 3,000 people gathered outside the broadcaster’s headquarters north of Athens on Tuesday night, vowed to stage a sit-in until the government rescinded the order, while members of Greece’s fragile governing coalition said that they, too, would resist the move.

Analysts said the decision to shut down the broadcaster, which does not require lawmakers’ approval, was a measure of both the government’s desperation and its determination to find a way to cut public jobs.

People take part in a rally in front of the Greek state television ERT headquarters after the government's announcement that it will shut down the broadcaster in Athens, on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Greece is to close down all its state-run TV and radio stations with the loss of some 2,500 jobs as part of its cost-cutting drive demanded by the bailed-out country’s international creditors. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)Petros Giannakouris / AP

The move came just days after one of Greece’s lenders, the International Monetary Fund — while acknowledging “serious errors” in the austerity policies it has imposed on the country — chastised the government as having failed to take “politically difficult measures” to shrink the public sector since it received its first bailout in 2010.

Athens promised its creditors this week to dismiss 4,000 civil servants this year, including 2,000 by the end of the summer and 15,000 by the end of 2014.

That may not sound daunting in a public work force of around 650,000. Yet, through more than three years of drastic budget cuts and a rapidly shrinking economy, the debt-ridden country has yet to fire a single government employee.

To understand what the government is up against, consider the case of Georgia Tsiounis and more than 10,000 other “temporary” workers. Eight years after landing a four-month contract with the municipality of Athens to water flowers and trim trees while other workers were on vacation, she was told recently that her services would be eliminated after her latest contract ends.

Rather than meekly accepting her fate, she turned to the well-worn tactic of filing a restraining order seeking to make the job permanent.

While she may well lose in court, legal analysts say, she cannot be fired while the case is pending. Given the glacial pace of Greece’s overburdened and inefficient court system, her case and thousands more like it will not be heard for nearly two years.

“I am suing to keep food on the table,” Mrs. Tsiounis said recently. “If I am let go amid high unemployment, where will I find work?”

Three years into Europe’s debt crisis, Greece, along with Spain, Portugal and other countries on the region’s troubled southern rim, are under increased pressure to revitalize government by cutting older, low-skilled workers and bringing in younger workers with advanced degrees and computer skills. In an ideal world, a refurbished civil service would improve efficiency in everything from policy making to tax collection, and set Greece more firmly on the path to recovery.

But roadblocks remain. Greece’s civil service is littered with longtime employees who got jobs through political favors, jobs-for-votes schemes or pure nepotism, despite pressure from creditors to clean house.

Greece has already shed 128,000 of the 150,000 civil service positions that the so-called troika of lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — demanded to be cut, mainly through retirements and reduced hiring. Ranks have been thinned to around 650,000 people today from 970,000 in 2009, when the civil service constituted nearly a third of Greece’s work force.

Creditors still want 15,000 cuts by the end of next year, which in some ways is an exercise in penance: Since the public work force has already shrunk significantly, the rest of the cuts are “really symbolic,” said Antonis Manitakis, a constitutional scholar tapped by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to oversee the streamlining of the civil service. “The troika mainly wants us to show we have the political will to reform.”

The last job cuts are a carrot of sorts after years of sticks from the troika. Once they are completed, the government can hire 15,000 new employees, provided they have diplomas, are computer-savvy and go through merit-based reviews — procedures unfamiliar to many people now on the Greek state’s payroll.

Clearing the slate is not easy. Most government jobs are protected by the Greek Constitution, and there are no job descriptions for most government positions, making it hard to evaluate performance and build cases for dismissal. A government plan to impose evaluations a few years ago flopped after employees refused to participate.

“Greece is one of the most bureaucratic countries in Europe,” said Mr. Manitakis, whose own office was flanked by five employees who stood up each time he came in and out. “The majority of government hirings in the past were made through clientelism or illegally.”

Mr. Manitakas says that as he looked for bloat, he was regaled with examples. In the most eye-popping cases, Mr. Manitakis said, government officials appointed relatives or friends to manage departments with no employees, giving them posts that came with bonuses, long holidays and even a car and driver. Today, the average Greek ministry has about 440 departments or administrative units, 20 percent of which have no staff other than the department head.

That leaves Mr. Manitakis searching for what would seem to be low-hanging fruit. But other targets came with their own set of problems. For instance, he hoped to swiftly fire around 1,500 civil servants facing disciplinary action, including a man who skipped work for more than 100 days and a worker accused of demanding bribes.

Yet only a handful have gone before the tribunal that decides such cases.

And then there is a phalanx of quasi-government agencies, many of which seem to have outlived their purpose. One of those, Electromechanica Kymi Ltd., was set up 25 years ago to make uniforms, accessories and bulletproof vests for the military. But since 2002, the 50 workers at its building in a village two hours west of Athens have produced only a tiny fraction of what they used to after government officials started outsourcing the work to other companies.

“I don’t even know what some of them do,” said Greece’s inspector general, Leandros Rakintzis, who is in charge of identifying corruption and cronyism in government. “What I do know is that many people are going to work and being paid for doing nothing.”

Yet even if those agencies can be shuttered, they will yield only around 250 of the 15,000 jobs that Mr. Manitakis is seeking.

And even if the thousands of cuts do materialize, the troika’s goal of renewing Greece’s public sector with new employees may prove elusive, since austerity policies have slashed salaries so much that some see little incentive to enter government.

Amfitriti Eressioti — ambitious, fluent in three languages and armed with a law degree and a master’s in taxation — is just the sort of person the government is desperate to hire.

But she would earn only about $1,300 after taxes each month, she says, a figure that would leave her struggling to pay her bills. “I love my country,” Ms. Eressioti said, “but you can’t expect a person to end up losing money just to work for you.”

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.

This story, "Greece Shuts Broadcaster in Bid to Show Resolve," originally appeared in The New York Times.