Greece starts firing civil servants for first time in a century

The Greek government began its first mass-firing of public-sector workers in more than 100 years this week, part of an effort to lay off 180,000 by 2015 under Europe-imposed austerity.

John Kolesidis/Reuters
Municipal workers dressed in traditional costumes protest in Athens today against the government’s plan to layoff thousands of public sector workers as part of its austerity reform program.

Pushed by its European creditors amid its crippling economic crisis, Greece began this week to do something it hasn't done in more than 100 years: fire public-sector workers en masse.

Following weeks of tough negotiations with its lenders – the "troika" of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the European Central Bank – the Greek government started laying off public-sector workers in an effort to implement the austerity that the troika has demanded. The first two civil servants were let go on Wednesday under a new law that speeds up the process – one, a policeman, for stealing debit cards, and the other for 110 days of unexcused absence.

The mass layoffs were announced last week in a televised address by the Greek prime minister himself, Antonis Samaras. Despite the massive unemployment in Greece, the goal of the government has become the laying off of 180,000 civil servants by 2015. “This is not a human sacrifice," said Prime Minister Samaras. “It’s an upgrading of the public sector and it’s one demand of Greek society.”

Samaras though, promised new positions to be created: “An equal number [of employees] will be hired on merit,” he added.

A century without layoffs

Civil servants’ jobs have been protected by a law that dates back to the 1880s, which became enshrined in the century-old Greek constitution. Until that provision became law, each newly elected government would sack the civil servants hired by the previous government to replace them with their own party members, creating civil unrest and a dysfunctional state.

“The logic [behind this law] was that the public administration has to be politically independent, feel secure, and ensure the state’s continuity,” said Dimitris Charalambis, professor of political science at the University of Athens.

Even though the 19th-century law was initially intended to fight nepotism, it caused its own problem: Each successive government hired its own people, adding to a continually expanding civil service without making the public sector any more effective. As a result, the Greek public sector became infamous for being dysfunctional and bureaucratic.

Further, although the law had allowed the firing of civil servants convicted of misappropriation of public funds and other serious crimes or when their jobs are phased out, the civil servants were still guaranteed a right to appeal. The appeal process could take two to three years, during which they were able to remain at work.

The law was changed last November to speed up the appeal process and suspend civil servants charged with crimes. A separate effort today to remove the appeal entirely was blocked by the justice minister as unconstitutional, however.

“[The civil servants], who are charged for disciplinary offenses, have the right to a hearing before the disciplinary council of the civil service and a right to appeal,” says George Katrougalos, professor of law at the Demokritos University of Thrace. “Until the final decision is reached, they cannot be fired.”

But while the law now strengthens the government's ability to fire civil servants, it also makes the workers more vulnerable – a particular problem amid Greece's politically charged economic struggles. This week, for example, a teacher was suspended after he was arrested during an anti-austerity demonstration – a situation more common as of late.

Not a size problem?

Since 2010, when the economic crisis started, public debate over the public sector’s size has grown.

And while the troika has demanded the Greek government shed jobs over the past few years, it had previously done so via civil servants going early into retirement and the expiration of fixed-term employment contracts that some public-sector workers had with the state.

“The public administration has lost about 140,000 posts, from a total of about 700,000. [And now] as the minister of administrative reform has admitted, there are serious problems in many [public] services, especially social ones,” says Katrougalos.

Still, despite its reputation of being overgrown, the Greek public-sector workforce is actually smaller than the European Union average. According to ECB statistics from 2011, Greece employed 29 percent of its labor force in the public sector – smaller than Belgium's 38 percent and France's 31 percent during the same period.

“The problem is not its size," says Katrougalos, "but the fact that it is irrationally organized, overgrown in some areas and underdeveloped in others, especially in the welfare sector."

• Marina Rigou contributed to this report.

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