Greece is set for the biggest shake-up of working life in decades after its pro-business government sought to brand parliament’s passage of controversial labour laws as a fresh start for a nation once at the centre of Europe’s financial crisis.
The passage of legislation described as antediluvian by opponents and positively life-changing by supporters came within hours of the EU’s top executive arriving in Athens on Thursday to endorse a post-pandemic recovery plan for the country.
“Today I am very happy to announce that the commission has given the green light for Greece’s national recovery plan,” the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a speech at Athens’s ancient agora as the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stood next to her. “This plan … belongs to the Greek people and will transform the Greek economy.”
Dubbed Greece 2.0, the scheme foresees €30.5bn (£26bn) in grants and loans being unlocked to support 175 critical investments in areas ranging from the environment to digital reform.
The jubilant scenes were in stark contrast to the strikes, demonstrations and fiery debate that had unfolded before MPs late on Wednesday voted through labour reforms likened by the veteran trade unionist Grigoris Kalomiris to “Thatcherite policies on steroids”. The measures include changes such as allowing employees to opt for a longer working day in exchange for time off.
For Mitsotakis, a former banker bent on modernising the economy, the workplace changes are long overdue. Addressing the chamber prior to 158 deputies endorsing the employment laws, he called the reforms essential, saying the bill would bring Greece in line with the rest of Europe by overhauling legislation that dates back to a pre-internet era and aligning it with the digital age.
The reforms also set rules on remote work and include safeguards against sexual harassment in the workplace.
“The nucleus of this legislation is worker-friendly, it is deeply growth-oriented,” he told the 300-member house, dismissing claims it would formally abolish the eight-hour working day.
Mitsotakis’s centre-right administration has faced fierce resistance over the bill. Opposition parties have decried the reforms, arguing they roll back long-established workers’ rights in the name of flexibility and EU diktats that erode legal protections.
Mitsotakis is accused by critics of exploiting lockdowns imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic to ram the contentious bill through parliament.
“You are baptising the middle ages, the Enlightenment … [with] the logic of more work, less pay, no protection,” said the leftwing Syriza party leader and former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, vowing to annul the reforms if he wins the next election.
Under the legislation employees will be forced to work overtime, Tsipras said, but would have to be content with “a day off instead of extra pay”. He added: “This means working more for less pay and without [job] security.”
The centre-left Movement for Change party described the regulations as “ruthless”, claiming passage of reforms such as paternity leave were a fig leaf for the adoption of neoliberal policies that would facilitate dismissals and prevent strike action.
“In the face of these policies any progressive citizen cannot remain indifferent or silent,” its leader, Fofi Gennimata, said. “Time off does not pay the bills or holidays.”
The reforms were also blasted as a clear attempt to break the power of trade unions, with opponents citing the stipulation that enterprises, including public utilities, continue to run with a third of “security personnel” when strikes are called.
“Every right, every responsibility that unions have won has been undermined,” Kalomiris told the Guardian. “Collective work agreements have been annulled by individual work contracts that favour employers. The eight-hour workday has been replaced by 10-hour workdays with the promise of less work on other days and overtime payments being lost.
“What we are seeing, 40 years later, are Thatcherite policies on steroids.”
In a nation with a vibrant tradition of unions organising walkouts and protest rallies, it remained to be seen whether many of the measures could be enforced, he warned.
“This is a country where unemployment officially is still about 15%,” he said, insisting that the real figure following the pandemic was more like 20%.
“There is no way in such a climate that strike action will be obstructed. We will use all our might to resist it.”