Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist

Pensioned off at 33? No wonder Greece is bankrupt

By Loucas Charalambous

THE MOST impressive thing about all the things written and said by our political demagogues and naive journalists, who are outraged over the allegedly ‘harsh and cynical’ treatment of Greece by its international lenders, is the complete absence of any mention of the reasons for the country’s collapse.

None of them has ever said a word about what caused the country to go bankrupt. Instead they all take swipes at the easy and popular targets – Greece’s EU partners and international lenders. For those who do not know why Greece is in the mess it is in today, the following says it all.

In 1999 some of my relatives from Athens visited Cyprus. Among them was a young woman with her husband, and one day I heard her describe the difficulty she experienced every day getting to work in Piraeus. She worked at IKA (Greece’s largest social security organisation) and had to use two buses and the train every day to go to work.

When I asked her something regarding the transport problems, her answer left me speechless. She said: “Leave it, in 17 months I will be pensioned off and my problem will be solved.” Unable to hide my surprise, I said: “17 months… but how old are you?” She replied that she was 30-and-a-half “but in a year-and-a-half I will have completed 15 years in the job and will be entitled to a pension.”

I just about managed to ask here one more question. “So if you at 33 start receiving a pension who will be working and making contributions to the state so you can be paid every month? Eighty-year-olds?”

Nothing else need be said for any rational person to understand why Greece is bankrupt. However I add here a few figures that shock. According to official data the total number of pensioners in Greece was 2,653,198. The workforce is estimated to be three million, which would roughly mean that for every working person there is a pensioner.

In January, the state paid some €2.6 billion in pensions. In other words, it pays in pensions €30 billion a year, which is a third of annual state revenue. It should also be noted that there are 93 different pension funds. The situation is beyond a joke.

Last week, one of the members of a TV panel on Greece’s state channel ERT was a Nikos Kalakos who was the president of the public employees’ provident fund. I expected to hear the kind of militant views uttered by our own Glafkos Hadjipetrou, but I was wrong. I was really surprised to hear this man angrily describing the scandalous way in which assorted governments handled pensions.

He described how a pensioner with just 15 years of work contributions by resorting to a variety of tricks (lawful of course), also involving the state’s ‘auxiliary funds’, could be paid the same pension as someone who had worked for 40 years.

Kalakos also revealed that one year orders had been given to increase all pensions by 15 per cent the following year. He wrote back saying that the fund could not afford it and proposed that this unjustified rise was not given. The minister’s response was that the increase would be given because “elections are coming.” Kalakos then turned to the rest of panellists and, displaying both anger and sadness, told them: “Our lenders know about all this better than us. Do you think they are fools and we can take them for a ride?”

I remembered that what made the biggest impression on me, after seeing television pictures outside the Greek banks of people waiting to collect their pensions were not the long queues but the fact that the elderly were the minority. Most of the pensioners in the queues were in the 40 to 55 age group.

This is the Greece that has gone bankrupt. If, to the number of pensioners we also add the public employees that were close to one million before the cuts, we realise the state is paying wages and pensions to half the adult population of the country. This is Greece’s ‘dignity’ that the lenders, supposedly, do not respect and causes our own political and journalistic clowns to beat their breasts with rage.

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