Greece dogged by brain drain

ATHENS, Greece — Danae Lebesopoulou was delighted when she was accepted for a four-month work experience placement at an internet TV startup in Athens. She expected her years spent studying Arabic and Persian, as well as her master's in Middle Eastern Studies from Scotland’s Edinburgh University, to pay off.

But Lebesopoulou soon realized that little was being asked of her aside from translating the occasional article in the English-language press and doing a minimal amount of fact-checking. Though she had expected to make some money, she was soon told that her work was “voluntary and unpaid.”

“As a newcomer, you can’t just sign up to the journalists’ union and they’ll protect you,” said Lebesopoulou. “The deal you’re given by the boss is: ‘I’ll take you as a trainee, no pay and the union won’t have your back. If you don’t like it, you’re free to go.’”

Though harsh, Lebesopoulou’s experience is increasingly typical of those entering Greece’s labor markets. New legislation introduced as part of government austerity measures intended to save some $40 billion over three years will limit salaries in a public sector employee's first year to under 600 euros ($740) a month.

So increasingly well-educated young Greeks are taking their expensively acquired skill-sets outside Greece and seeking work in northern Europe and America.

"It's not always an issue of choice, but often one of a lack of choice," said Kalliopi Amygdalou, a student at the London School of Economics. "We don't usually prefer going abroad, quite simply we can't find work in Greece."

According to new research released this month by the University of Macedonia, 84 percent of those who studied abroad decided to remain outside Greece. Just half of them bothered even to search for work in Greece — hardly surprising when one in three graduates of foreign universities who try to stay in Greece remain unemployed.

Unemployment among 18- to 30-year-olds is about 25 percent and does not decrease among college graduates. In daytime, idle youth fills Athens’ cafes and bars. At night, many of them return to their parents’ homes, where they continue living into their 30s, staving off costly pursuits such as getting married and having children.

Government-led reforms of employment law will result in entrants into the job market earning a reduced “trainee salary” of 600 euros a year.

Young Greeks have long been one of Europe’s best-educated and least-appreciated workers. Returning to Greece from expensive colleges in Britain, the United States and western Europe, they collide against a culture of patriarchy and entrenched interests that blocks them from earning salaries appropriate to their skills.

“It’s one of the country’s toughest problems and it affects our development,” said Ioannis Panaretos, the deputy minister of education. “Greece is making a large investment through offering free education but receives nothing in return.”

Lebesopoulou came back to Greece just to visit her family, but then her father's health deteriorated and she decided to stay.  “It’s not like I hadn’t been told to not even expect that I would find a job,” Lebesopoulou said.

Forced to stay in Athens, Lebesopoulou discovered that Greek journalism suffers from clientilism, unregulated business interests, a lack of meritocracy in hiring and politicised private and government funding.

Workplace horror stories abound in other fields, too. An email purporting to have been written by a colleague of the bank workers who suffocated to death when protesters set a bank alight during the May 5 demonstration in Athens claims that their bosses had forced them to ignore the nationwide strike and work that day.

“It’s time to discuss another way of development that’ll serve people’s needs and not the capitalist class,” said Yannis Giokas, one of 21 members of parliament for the Greek Communist Party who believe that the debt crisis is merely an excuse for Greece’s pro-Western government to push through legislation favoring big business.

A new system of short-term contracts phased in over the past decade is chipping away at the certainty of a job for life.

“The idea that a return to growth and development will be in the favor of the people is an illusion spread by big business,” Giokas added. “Between 2002 and 2008, Greece had an above average growth rate in the eurozone, which coincided with the greatest attack on social, educational and labor rights in the modern era.”

A class of cosmopolitan Greek technocrats involved in the great push for the profligate Athens 2004 Olympics were left by the wayside once the floodlights were extinguished, earning the moniker of “lost generation.” For those who matured in the six years since the end of the Olympics, the party was over. Assuming they could find work, they were contributing to a workforce tasked with recouping over $10 billion of debt incurred by Greece’s Olympic folly.

In December 2008, this generation exploded in anger after a policeman shot dead a 15-year-old student in Athens’ politically turbulent Exarheia neighbourhood. Hundreds of thousands of young people demonstrated across Greece, often leading the five days of intense rioting during which banks, ministries and private businesses were looted.

“There was rage as they snapped,” recalled Vasso Monokrousou, 30, who witnessed schoolchildren lobbing Molotov cocktails into disused car lots. “There were kids out there who had never been to a demo in their life, taking over ERT (state TV), closing streets in front of their schools and occupying public buildings.”

“They see no future for themselves in the country where they live.”