ATHENS: Greece is going through an exceptionally tough summer: Severely squeezed by its debt crisis, it is now in the grip of a high-profile taxi strike at the height of the busy tourism season.
The country – and by extension, all visitors – has been deprived of taxi services since mid-July from a walkout by cab owners who oppose a government deregulation drive demanded by Greece’s international creditors.
In addition to refusing to carry passengers, the strikers dealt further damage by blocking highways and disrupting access to airports and harbours around the country in the first round of their action.
They later toned down the picketing but are threatening to return to the offensive if the government refuses to satisfy their demands.
“I can’t control these people,” union leader Thymios Lyberopoulos told Alter channel this week, adding that he got “goosebumps” when thinking about what irate cab owners might do to resist the reform which they say will put them out of business.
The strikers changed tactics last week, letting drivers through highway toll booths and opening ticket offices at the Acropolis and Olympia to let tourists in for free, but this costs the cash-strapped state valuable income.
The sector is generally despised in Greece for constantly demanding higher fares while failing to offer improved services. It has taken authorities years to get cabbies to give receipts and stop smoking in their cars.
And the protesters made no friends in Piraeus Thursday after they tried to block tourist coaches exiting the harbor, dropped oil on the road to fend off police, and threw stones at a private television station.
The strike began after a new transport minister appointed in June ditched an earlier draft reform agreed by his predecessor with unions that would have capped the number of taxi licences based on population in each region.
Talks at the ministry Friday failed to break the deadlock.
“The minister heard our demands but gave no reply. The strike will unfold as planned until we get a pledge [from the government],” Lyberopoulos said Friday.
Taxi owners argue that full liberalisation will cause a cabbie glut and sink the value of their operating licenses, which used to change hands for six-figure sums.
About 8,000 taxi owners protested in Athens Tuesday according to police estimates. One of the banners they raised in front of parliament was a direct threat of last-ditch resistance to Prime Minister George Papandreou.
“Mr Prime Minister, we got [our taxis] with blood, you will only take them back with blood,” it said.
More than 1.2 billion euros ($1.7 billion) in revenue has been lost at the main port of Piraeus which was blockaded in the first week of the strike, forcing cruise ships to cancel tours and seek alternative ports, Greek media reported.
A Greek trader lobby group said that although tourist arrivals were up this year, the taxi strike had already significantly affected takings.
“There is a 10-15 percent increase in arrivals but there is also a 10-percent fall in tourism spending,” said Vassilis Korkidis, head of the Greek confederation of commerce.
“I just came back from Rhodes where many tourists are stuck in their hotels,” he told AFP.
The government has sought to play for time, offering further talks with the taxi owners’ union in return for a summer truce.
Papandreou this week appealed to the strikers to “be conscious of the negative effects of their mobilization during a critical period for tourism, the country’s economic life and citizens.”
And the government avoided another labor front opening in the nick of time.
Air traffic controllers this week threatened to strike in August over four months of unpaid overtime, threatening disruption at regional airports.
Senior officials rushed to settle the issue and the mobilisation was called off, for the time being.
Greece’s travel sector, which makes up around a fifth of the economy, needs extra revenue from foreigners this year.
Because a recession fuelled by crash austerity measures has bitten into Greeks’ spare income, domestic tourism is down 20 percent this summer according to Greek tourism and hotel operators.
The European Union and International Monetary Fund have demanded sweeping deregulation in various Greek labor sectors in exchange for loans needed to save Athens from defaulting on its debt.