Of unemployment, of flexibility and of the nature of labour, post-Covid

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Greece has been quite successful in dealing with the health aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Public opinion has appreciated the Government’s performance in keeping the spread of the virus at bay; international media have shown their appreciation. Now that opening-up the economy is the main concern, public opinion seems to keep its trust to public policy – that is, to the forward planning of support measures addressed to both businesses and the workforce, reeling under the after-effects of the lock-down that is being lifted now.

Notwithstanding such positive feelings, the major issue for the Greek economy tomorrow – a tomorrow that is rapidly approaching – is unemployment.  Even the Federation of Greek Industries sounds the alarms, noting that as early as March – when the pandemic was just starting to raise its ugly head – job losses were at record levels, worse even that in the deeper point of the great recession that followed (in 2011-13) the Greek debt crisis. Such losses were mainly the result of an abrupt brake to hirings rather than of increased lay-offs; the latter were discouraged by Government measures that tied support to businesses to a freeze of layoffs. The main sectors that experienced most of the shock were those to be expected: temporary hirings for the tourist sector and for (tourist-influenced) restaurants, cafés, bars and the suchlike, plus the retail trade.

Tele-working solutions, part-time work, transfer of workers within business groups did much to avoid direct lay-offs. At the same time, all such flexibility factors may well erode the nature of labour in case demand does not pick up (Greece is a consumption-based, services-dominated economy). They are already eroding pay, since public-funded schemes to support wages depress labour income to lower levels.

Meanwhile, concerns multiply that have to do with the consequences of tele-working  and flexible forms of employment if no adequate institutional framework is put in place. Soon. They range from the possibilities that tele-working gives to employers to monitor the performance of their workforce and push for an increase in productivity to intrusion to private/family life and leisure time of e-workers who may well end up feeling “at call” just as executives or consultants often do. (But executives are executives and consultants are consultants…). One would expect that Unions would fret over such issues and that social partners would be rolling up their sleeves and starting negotiations over adequate rules. No such sign, for the time being.