The changing context of employment relations

Greece in a comparative south European perspective

Gregoris Ioannou, University of Glasgow

Greece faced the most severe crisis of the south European countries and after a decade of austerity resembles a war destroyed territory. Unemployment and underemployment was already relatively high before the crisis and soon after the austerity policies begun, it climbed further up as the country sank into a recessionary spiral. In parallel to cuts in public spending, increases in taxation and fiscal reforms in general, a series of political and legal measures were undertaken that overhauled the Greek labour relations system. Collective bargaining was severely weakened and low wages were institutionalized in both the public and private sectors. The aim of this paper is to map the whole spectrum of changes in employment relations that have occurred in Greece, examining both the fields of the economy and the market as well as those of the state and the law, and set the developments in Greece in a comparative south European perspective.

At the level of the economy and the market, the impact of the depression and the contraction of the economy will be discussed in terms of their impact on the labour market in general and particularly on the trade unions. The analysis will utilize analogous examples from the crisis experience of other South European countries such as Spain and Cyprus. At the level of the state and the law, the political context and the legal content of the key developments in the fields of labour market (re)-regulation will be sketched out so as to grasp the dynamics of change occurring in the last decade. The main research question addressed in this paper is to identify the drivers of the restructuring process and assess the agency and role of different external and internal forces and actors in producing the shift in both the employment and the social and political domains.

Overall these developments were highly contested in Greece, initially provoking mass protests against the “Memoranda policies” and subsequently leading into a comprehensive transformation of the political party system. Although SYRIZA emerged as the major political force promising the end of austerity and an alternative policy assuming executive power in 2015, not only this proved impossible, but in fact ultimately served to stabilize, legitimize and normalize the degenerate labour market and industrial relations conditions that had emerged. Furthermore, in some fields such as immigrant labour, a new regime of “para-legality” was constructed in the SYRIZA years through which atypical migrant work was regularized, whereby work was made legal while residence remained illegal, resulting in the further erosion of labour law.

To sum up, this paper will outline the contours of the changing employment relations context in Greece setting them in a comparative framework, it will illustrate the causal mechanisms at two levels – economic and legal – and will discuss the social consequences of this changing context. This will involve a discussion of the inter-relation between supranational and national dynamics, conflicts of actors within and between them and ultimately the power relations that underpin and shape those relationships. It is thus expected to produce insights both about the current state of regulation of labour relations in Greece but also with respect to the structural and agential aspects which have influenced its course in the last decade.