Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Thursday, 30 June 2011 13:42 UK

Why Greeks venerate their 'inefficient' public sector

Demonstrators in Greece

As Greece's parliament holds a second vote on its controversial austerity programme, Manuela Saragosa reflects on the importance of the public sector to the Greek nation, and how it has helped the country move on from its dark past.

Vangelis is no ordinary Greek.

About 10 years ago he did the unthinkable. He turned down a job at the Central Bank of Greece, an employer widely seen as offering the best perks and privileges in the Greek public sector.

So why did he say no?

A cleaner at the Ministry of Finance earns as much as a manager in other ministries

We are sitting at a bar on the rooftop of a hotel in central Athens.

In the distance Greece's most famous tourist attraction - the Acropolis - is lit up against a clear night sky.

A warm evening breeze shifts the foam on his glass of beer.

Vangelis looks out across the cluttered buildings that make up the Greek capital.

"After I got my acceptance letter, I called up the personnel department at the Bank of Greece," he says.

"And I asked them, 'what will I be doing in my job there?'"

'Don't worry,' they answered, 'we'll find you something.'

"So I said, 'thank you, but no thank you, I won't be taking the job.'

"They said I was crazy. They were really shocked," he says.

Overstaffed and inefficient

To understand just how shocking that decision was requires a quick profile of Greece's overstaffed public sector. Up until now jobs in public institutions have been for life.

Early retirement is common.


The public sector wage bill will be cut by 770m euros in 2011, 600m euros in 2012, 448m euros in 2013, 300m euros in 2014 and 71m euros in 2015

Nominal public sector wages will be cut by 15%

Wages of employees of state-owned enterprises will be cut by 30% and there will be a cap on wages and bonuses

Only one in 10 civil servants retiring this year will be replaced and only one in 5 in coming years

Retirement packages are guaranteed and generous.

About one in every four working people is believed to work for the state in one form or another. No-one is quite sure about the exact figure.

Yet the Greek public sector ranks as one of the world's most inefficient.

Pay is generous in some departments.

As one Greek businessman pointed out - a cleaner at the Ministry of Finance earns as much as a manager in other ministries.

Greece's brightest young graduates all want to work for the civil service.

I met Nikos Sofianos, a Greek entrepreneur, at his wood-flooring showroom on a hot, sunny morning on the outskirts of Athens.

His sales have slumped as the Greek economy drags itself though its debt crisis.

He tells me the story of the 10 work placement interns he met when he used to sit on the board of an outfit called Invest in Greece, a body designed to encourage private investment.

One day he invited the interns into his office.

"These were some of the best graduates in the country," he says.

"All of them clever, top of their class. Good looking, too."

One by one he asked them what they hoped to achieve in their careers.

"All of them - every single one - wanted a job in the public sector," he says.

He shakes his head.

"I told them - you're crazy. Go out in the world. Do something productive in the real economy.

"But they just weren't interested."

Painful legacy

It would be too easy to dismiss these young graduates as lazy or un-ambitious.

But the public sector's appeal as the employer of choice for Greeks has its roots in much darker places.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou as a young boy posing together with his late father Andreas (right) and grandfather George (left) - both former Greek prime ministers
George Papandreou as a boy poses with his late father Andreas (r)

It goes back to the influence of Andreas Papandreou, Greece's first socialist prime minister - and father of the current prime minister George.

Papandreou Senior won a landslide victory in the general elections of 1981.

He wanted all those sidelined by the right-wing establishment to share in the country's wealth.

It meant bringing all those excluded from power after the 1946-1949 Civil War, and the dictatorship of the 1960s and 70s, into the warm and generous arms of the state.

Under his rule, the number of jobs in the public sector grew, as did wages, pensions and perks.

Supporters will argue it spawned a comfortable middle class among a people for whom the right-wing killings and arrests of the post-war era are still within living memory.

Critics will say it spawned a monster, a public sector that dished out jobs and privileges as political favours, unshackled from economic reality, and encouraging Greece to live way beyond its means.

All of which brings us back to Vangelis as he drinks his beer at the bar on the hotel rooftop in Athens.

He drains the last of his glass, and picks at the deep-fried halloumi nibbles.

Vangelis tells me he supports efforts to reform the Greek economy - but he is no right winger.

He understands Greek mistrust of the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Both are now demanding that the country take the axe to a public sector that has allowed so many Greeks to put their violent past behind them.

He turned down the job at the Bank of Greece because he wants his country to move on from such dependency on the state.

It has meant a smaller income in the private sector for him - and far less job security.

"It's hard," he shrugs.

"But Greece needs to go through this period of austerity if it wants to become a modern state."

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