This week, the Greek Parliament will vote on a number of austerity measures, including tax hikes, spending cuts and privatization of public industries. These measures are conditions of the €12 billion latest installment of a €110 billion loan from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which the Greek government needs to pay its bills over the next few months.
For nearly a month now, tens of thousands of protestors have been congregating daily in Athens’ main square in opposition to the proposed measures. In the lead-up to the vote, large unions have mounted a 48-hour strike, heightening expressions of public outrage.
The measures under debate are more elements in a series of cuts already made since increasing economic and financial crises came to a head in Greece in 2009.
Plagued by public sector mismanagement, rampant bribery and corruption, tax evasion by corporations and the wealthy and a productive sector weakened by the global economic downturn, Greece’s public debt has been well above the 3% cap for Eurozone members for the past few years. Now, Greece is the first EU country to face the possibility of defaulting on its foreign debts. Many are worried that Ireland, Portugal and Spain are heading in the same direction, calling into question policies gone wayward throughout the region.
For the last several years, successive Greek administrations have resisted implementing structural adjustment measures because of their philosophical commitments to the welfare state – and, more bluntly, the risk of being voted out of power if they dismantled it. Recently, though, the administration has reversed its tack, accepting the EU-IMF conditions, which will place more burdens on women, the working class and the poor.
Several years ago, the first wave of the economic and fiscal crisis in Greece and the structural adjustment program put in place to address it heightened gender and class inequalities and provoked a crisis in the unpaid care economy.
Unemployment rose, with rates for women double those for men; men, though, have been the primary beneficiaries of sector-specific unemployment support measures.
Public sector jobs in health and education, which were primarily held by women, were cut, leaving women without salaries and social protections.
As incomes fell and government coffers depleted, taxes rose, hitting the poor the hardest and causing previously middle-income persons to fall into the “new poor” category.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis has heightened stress within families and increased domestic violence. Moreover, dismal career prospects for young people have prompted a return to traditional “family values.” One Greek psychologist reports, “If young women feel they have little chance of a meaningful career, they may decide to forfeit it entirely and focus on those things that have most meaning and value – which in the Greek context would likely mean focusing solely on a role as mother and homemaker.”
The austerity measures will further cement these “traditional values.”
Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou and his cabinet argue, though, that the measures are necessary conditions for the EU-IMF loan and that there is no other option. EU economic officials have been quick in affirming, “there is no Plan B.”
Economists such as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, believe though that such measures will make the recession worse by creating so much unemployment that wages and prices will fall rather than growing the Greek economy’s way out of recession with sufficient stimulus.
For women’s rights advocates, “austerity measures” are just a newer name for devastating structural adjustment programs (SAPs). As the primary policy conditionality tied to loans from the World Bank and IMF throughout the 1980s and 1990s, SAPs were imposed worldwide, essentially making women work longer and harder for less at great costs to their own health and well-being.
The EU is now applying the same kind of recipe to the poorest countries within the Union, one that might improve macroeconomic indicators and ensure some level of debt-repayment in the short-run, but will not ensure a just sustainable development for Greece or any of other countries in trouble in the long-run.
At the heart of the debate around austerity measures – and other macroeconomic policies – are fundamental philosophical and political questions around whether wealth and prosperity should be held by a few elite or shared by all.
Women’s rights advocates have put forth a number of policy suggestions. The government already had a plan to use EU funds to subsidize private day care facilities, but trade union feminists emphasize that it would be better to use the funds to create new public facilities. Unpaid dependent care work should also be recognized in the pension system so that women taking off years for dependent care are not disadvantaged at retirement.
Feminists and others also argue that budget cuts can be made in other places instead of in social spending. For example, due to the long-standing tensions with Turkey, Greece spends a disproportionate amount of its GDP on military spending. Greek feminists and others have argued that this should be reduced in favor of social spending.
Transform!, a European network for alternative thinking and dialogue, has proposed revising the entire “European project” which they argue has turned into a neoliberal one. The numerous and ensuing crises illustrate the failure of the neoliberal model to deliver on just, sustainable development suggesting, in fact, no other option than a Plan B for all of the EU.
The Women in Development Europe (WIDE) Network calls for a rethinking of how “the economy” is defined, arguing “economics should focus on provisioning activities that maintain life- human and environmental – thus providing the basis for the radical reworking of development models towards a more human and environmentally sustainable economic system.”
Although the IMF, EU and Greek government are putting forth austerity measures as the only way forward, women’s rights advocates in Greece and worldwide know otherwise.
Masum Momaya, Lois Woestman and Kathambi Kinoti contributed to research and writing.