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Why the Greeks are protesting

Reductions in "bonus pay" cut into income that many civil servants rely on.

Protesters and protesting police officers applaud each other during a rally as more than 10,000 people marched through central Athens on March 11, 2010. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

ATHENS, Greece — When civil unrest hits Greece, Giorgos Papadapoulos is usually standing behind a riot shield, protecting parliament, not protesting outside. But today, the 28-year-old policeman joined tens of thousands of teachers, dockworkers, postal employees and journalists marching against a set of painful government austerity measures that mean his already small paycheck will shrink even further.

“It’s a different feeling for me,” he said, glancing at Greece’s parliament. “But this is important. It hurts me and my family.”

Under pressure from international markets and its European partners to reduce its deficit, the Greek government last week announced a raft of tax increases and a 30 percent cut to the two-months of “bonus” pay Greek civil servants receive each year. That may not sound like a big deal, but for low-paid state workers like Papadapoulos, the holiday pay — known as “gifts” or “doro” in Greek — isn’t extra money. It’s part of the yearly income they rely on to survive.
In Greece, as in some other European countries, salaries are divided into 14 months, rather than 12. Workers get an additional month’s salary at Christmas, and half a month’s salary both at Easter and before the August summer holidays. This is mandated by law and is true for employees in both the public and private sectors.

Many Greeks set aside the money for vacations and big purchases, or use it to pay off debts accrued during the rest of the year. But for Papadapoulos, even before the cuts, there wasn’t money for holidays or luxuries — he relied on the bonuses to help meet regular bills.

After five years on the force, Papadapoulos takes home 1,000 euros a month, about $1,360. About 600 euros — $820 — goes to pay rent and utilities, leaving him just 400 euros ($546) a month to support his wife and 4-year-old child. With the cuts, this Easter he will receive a bonus of only 350 euros, instead of the normal 500 euros.

“Four-hundred euros to take care of my wife, my child,” he said. “You can see how difficult it is to live on this.”

Faced with a soaring deficit and oversized state debt, Greece’s government implemented the measures in an attempt to reassure international markets and its eurozone partners that it would not go bankrupt. The measures come after an initial round of spending cuts and revenue increases announced in December failed to assuage international fears about the country’s credit worthiness.

But the new measures are unpopular and anger against them is growing. Today a protest organized by the country’s main unions turned violent. Groups of masked youths smashed the windows of banks and luxury stores and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police.