Sunday 8th March 2015
The now-legendary battle of the 595 sacked Greek cleaners to win back their jobs is a clarion call to all women suffering from ideological cuts, writes Christina Vasilaki
In December 2014, 595 sacked cleaners lost their protracted court battle with the Greek Finance Ministry to win their jobs back.
The workers — all but one of them women — had initially been made redundant on September 17 2013 and replaced by a private cleaning contractor.
The cleaners then took their case to court. In May 2014 the court decided that the layoff was not legal and “contrary to the public interest,” and that the cleaners must be reinstated. By December the ministry had found a legal loophole to avoid implementing the court decision.
A Supreme Court decision due on February 25 this year was instead postponed to October 13.
A group of cleaners attended the first European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg on September 16 2014 — almost exactly one year after they were unexpectedly fired.
“One year ago someone decided to ruin our lives. Someone decided that we are just numbers, not human beings,” said Dimitra Manoli — one of the 30-strong group that had been invited there by left-wing Syriza MEPs.
Wearing matching pink T-shirts, they raised their red-gloved fists to call for European solidarity in support of their struggle to win their jobs back.
Their wages ranged from €205 to €757 a month, according to their lawyer Yannis Karouzos, and their layoffs were part of the public-spending cuts imposed by the Troika of Greece’s international lenders (the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank).
Since then, these cleaners have been protesting every day outside the ministry building, becoming a symbol of resistance against the EU’s austerity policies.
Greek riot police have repeatedly attacked these protests, with many cleaners ending up in hospital covered with bruises.
“In Greece, we only receive violence as a response to our struggle,” said Evaggelia Giannaki, a 45-year-old woman who worked at the ministry for 13 years.
“The biggest problem is that at our age and in the context of rampant unemployment we are completely unable to find new jobs. In my mid-forties I want to work and I am doomed to unemployment. Even the European Social Fund is mainly targeted to the young unemployed. What about us?”
“The cleaners give an exemplary struggle for dignity,” said Konstantina (also known as Konstandinka) Kuneva, the Bulgarian-born Syriza MEP and founding member of the Union of Cleaners and Domestic Workers.
The elections in January 2015 brought Syriza to power. The leaders of the party had promised, as part of their pre-election campaign, to reinstate the 595 workers. The Supreme Court decision on October 13 will determine whether the cleaners are getting back to work, but the government might find legal ways to reinstate them before the decision is announced.
New Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis announced the reinstatement of the cleaners in his first press conference. “One of our first decisions is to reduce this ministry’s costs. In particular, a spectacular reduction of the number of consultants will allow us to hire the cleaners back,” he said while the ministry’s employees applauded and cheered.
Varoufakis knows one of the cleaners, Anthoula Tsouvela, and has commented on her commitment to the job.
In 2000 he initiated a new PhD programme in the Athens Kapodistrian University. The classes would often finish as late as 9pm and Tsouvela would stay beyond her working hours with no extra pay so as to ensure that the building was clean and locked after the classes were over.
Although her job description comprised only cleaning tasks, she would also prepare photocopies, deal with plumbing problems and configure the rooms’ lighting.
Her contract was terminated in September 2013 but she kept on going to her work. “Why not work? I have nothing else to do and there is no other cleaner for the evening shift. In this way I am spending my time, but I am also fooling myself that nothing changed” the 51-year-old mother of two said.
An international solidarity movement to support the Greek cleaners blossomed in the last year with actions taking place across Europe.
Eric Neuprez, who covers the cleaning sector for the Belgian trade union FTGB, said: “What happened to these Greek women who belong to the sensitive cleaning sector is typical of what happens in many countries.”
Belgian cleaners at Schaarbeek train station in Brussels went on strike in August 2014 to call on their employer, the subcontractor BM&S, to rehire the two trade union representatives and three long-term contract workers that it fired.
Tony Hatbois from union confederation CGT France has offered financial and moral support from the French trade unions to the Greek cleaners.
And in the Britain the TUC supported a demonstration organised by the Greece Solidarity Campaign outside the Hellenic Centre in London.
With thanks to Yorgos Altintzis.
Since 2009, the most brutal austerity measures carried out in a European country in the post-World War II period have led to the collapse of basic social infrastructure in Greece, including the denial of access to health care for 3 million people: here.