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Four Years of Austerity in 40 Pictures

Dimitris Michalakis' series depicts the social impact of austerity in Greece, and serves as a snapshot into almost half a decade dominated by headlines about social polarity, debt, and economic crisis.

This coming May will mark four years since the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund took control of the Greek economy. Although massively important, it’s an anniversary not many people are going to celebrate.
 
As more of a memento than a celebration, photographer Dimitris Michalakis has put together a selection of 40 photographs that he’s taken over the past four years. The series depicts the social impact of austerity in Greece, and serves as a snapshot into almost half a decade dominated by headlines about social polarity, debt, and economic crisis.

Greece has seen a revival of what in the 1930s was termed “The Great Depression.” The economic crisis has led to a restructuring of the conditions surrounding both production and consumption, as well as of the social fabric.

Many demonstrations led to violent conflicts. They resulted in damages to buildings of great historical and architectural value, with city streets resembling bombed landscapes.

Most citizens strongly oppose austerity measures and keep demonstrating in Athens and in large cities. Police brutality and the extended use of tear gas leads to health issues.

The Greek government deals with the discontented public by empowering the police forces. On the days of large demonstrations, thousands of police officers fill the streets of Athens and the capital turns into a war zone. This is slightly ironic, because police officers' salaries have been reduced greatly in the past years as well.

Many protests end in violent clashes with the police. Fire and tear gas fill the streets of the city, and sever damages are made to buildings of great historical and architectural value.

Greece experienced a dramatic rise in suicides. More than 3000 people have killed or attempted to kill themselves in the past four years. Certain cases were acts of political protest—the suicide of pensioner Dimitris Christoulas in April 2012 in Syntagma Square is the most remarkable. In his suicide note he wrote: “I am not killing myself. They are murdering me.”

Unemployment, wage and pension reductions, taxation spikes, and price increases have brought despair to Greek households.

430,000 kids live under the poverty threshold, in households without sufficient heating or the means to cover basic needs.

The economic crisis has been crashing the middle class, which has been the backbone of Greek society. More and more social strata are experiencing misery.

Since 2012, attacks of a racist nature against the Roma community have increased. In August 2012, in the Aetoliko region in Central Greece, a group of 80 people led by the local leaders of Golden Dawn burned down a series of Roma houses. Maria and her family were victims of that attack.

Immigrants work under terrible conditions. They are paid 8 to 12 Euros ($11 to $16.50) for the gathering of a ton of oranges. Many times, they are left unpaid and facing deportation. If they make the mistake of demanding their wages, local farm owners could even shoot them with hunting rifles. That's what happened in the town of Manolada in April 2013, when 28 immigrants from Bangladesh had to be taken to the hospital—some of them in critical condition.

In Athens alone, there are 25,000 homeless people. They sleep on benches and cardboard boxes. Their living conditions worsen during the winter when they have to face the cold, rain, and snow. Although there are thousands of empty houses and flats that could be used for their accommodation, the Municipality of Athens has taken no initiative to support them.

George is a farmer and father of three. He works 12 to 15 hours every day and his income has been reduced by 70 percent in the past four years.

Stamatia is unemployed, uninsured, and has no access to the health system. She sometimes cleans houses, but mostly relies on the generosity of her neighbors. Her husband is also unemployed. He used to work in construction, a sector that is practically at a halt since 2011.

My father’s generation (1964) is the last to enjoy healthcare in Greece. The national health system has shrunk enormously.

The old shutters became a wall, carboard boxes turned into a sofa, and pieces of nylon make up the curtains; this is Nikos' makeshift house. He used to be a contract employee of the broader public sector and lived in the northern suburbs of Athens. He now lives on a hill near the beach, about 100 yards from the waves.

Families in Greece have made extreme reductions in spending for clothes and shoes, both in big cities and rural areas. Seven out of ten Greeks did not manage to have a single day of vacation in 2013.

In January 2014, farmers demonstrated in response to the wild taxation, new cuts in subsidies, a spike in oil stream prices and a large increase in production costs, compared to the gradual but huge drop of their products' price.

When immigrants find work in the fields, the police do not bother them and they turn a blind eye conspiring with big farmers. When the harvest is over, thousands of immigrants live in the woods, hiding from the police in fear of being arrested and deported.

These carts are a common sight in Athens. Greeks and immigrants search for scraps of metal in trash cans in an attempt to make a living by selling to scrap yards.

A 2012 survey, with a sample of 214 persons, found that 64.8 percent have been homeless for less than two years—meaning for a period that coincides with the onset of the crisis. 89.7 percent of them are Greeks and 10.3 percent are foreigners. 82.2 percent are men, 60.7 percent are between the ages of 41 - 55, and 26.40 percent are between the ages of 26 - 40. One in five has a higher or university level of education and 40 percent have a high school degree. Costas is 57 years old and has special mobility needs. At nights, he sleeps in his car and during daytime he collects scraps of metal.

The only businesses that thrive are pawnshops. Inspections have shown that most of them do not fulfill the legal requirements and there are suspicions that money laundering also takes place. Desperate citizens go to such shops to pawn jewels, family memorabilia, and even gold teeth.

In a recent survey on the effects of austerity on mental health, 12 percent of Greeks matched the criteria for clinical depression. The population groups with the higher percentages were women, the 35-44 and 55-64 age cohorts, people of low education levels, those with a monthly income below 400 Euros ($550), the unemployed, and the underemployed. In 2008, the national average was 3.3 percent, and as the economic crisis deepens clinical depression becomes a major issue.

13.1 percent of Greek students abandon school seeking work to help their families. At the same time 2/3 of Greek youths are officially out of work and there is talk about a “lost generation.” The country is in its sixth consecutive year of recession

The approximate number of heroin users in Greece stands at 100,000 while in 1980 it was only 2,000. 58.9 percent of users are unemployed.

Drugs, prostitution, and other illegal activities are a way out for young Greeks, while their rage against past generations is growing. They don't trust the political system and are upset that their future is held in collateral.

Prostitution in Greece has grown dramatically during the crisis. Survey data from the NCSR (National Centre for Social Research) indicate a growth of prostitution by 1,500 percent until early 2012. Unemployment, poverty, and marginalization are among the leading causes young women and men enter into prostitution.

Two-thousand portions of food for lunch and 2,000 for dinner are offered by the municipality of Athens to the homeless and people with nonexistent income.

The neighbourhood of Perama is located on the west side of city. Fifty years ago, people in this area lived in wooden huts. At some point, citizens got mortgages, which they are now struggling to repay.

Pensioners have seen their pensions shrink and their life savings evaporate. The majority of them live in absolute poverty, unable to afford rent, electricity, a telephone, water, heating, and medicine.

Twenty-seven percent of Greek families cannot afford to cover their basic needs. More and more people end up in soup kitchens organized by the church, NGOs, or citizens’ initiatives.

A crucial aspect of contemporary Greece has also been the absence of concern for workplace health and safety rules. Employers, especially in manufacturing, refuse to take safety measures. They see it as a means of reducing production costs.

Hellenic Halyvourgia, one of the biggest Greek companies, has used the financial crisis to force workers to sign new contracts, reduce wages, and to fire some. Production came to a halt and the factory did not function for 272 days. Although the strikers' households could not count on a second salary as most of them were unemployed too, wives fully supported the fight against the owners.

Six thousand workers used to work here in the Scaramaga shipyard. It has been termed the “sick man” of the Greek Economy, after a series of transactions between Greek governments and foreign investors. Hundreds of articles have been written on scandals and malfunctioning submarines that tilted to one side. In October 2013, the shipyard officially stopped working with the 1100 remaining workers being practically thrown on the street.

Even though globally Greece holds a leading position in commercial shipping, redundancies, salaries of 400 Euro ($550) per month and excess work hours are just a few of the reasons that led dockers in the port of Piraeus to strike.

Fifty six seamen, the crew of the ferry-boat “Penelope A,” harbored in the port of Raphina and have been withholding their labor in demand of their wages. Those with families living outside the Attica region cannot afford the fare to go home.

Unemployed shipyard workers spend their time fishing in the Thriasion area. It is not only the economic crisis that has led to reduced orders or repairs, but also the conscious and coordinated boycott of the Perama shipyard by ship owners who are trying to punish workers for their trade union activities.

In northeastern Chalikidiki, the water supply system is unfit to use because of the high concentration of arsenic. Cyanide coming from three mines—Madem-Lakko, Mavres Petres, and Olympiada—is threatening the water reserves. Twenty-seven inhabitants are facing charges and imprisonment for forming a criminal organization because they protested the current and future pollution against the companies Hellenic Gold and Eldorado Gold, who have a projected 13 billion Euros ($17.85 billion) profit from mining in the area.

Diseases that were treated and eliminated decades ago in the Western world reappeared in Greece in 2012. Cases of malaria have been recorded in Evros and Scala. It is the result of spending cuts on things like insect pesticides.