PRIVATIZING WATER IN GREECE

Despite the fact that international exprerience shows that water privatization is harmful to the interests of citizens, the Greek government is pushing ahead with privatizing water supply and sewerage companies. In this report for UNFOLLOW magazine, Christos Avramidis and Antonis Galanopoulos present several sides of the issue, including a much debated attempt to claim the Thessaloniki water supply company for the people of the city.

“The idea that water is a human right comes from ‘extremist’ NGOs. Water is a food like any other, and must have a market value,” said the president of Nestlé in 2005. This is perhaps the only man who found it in him to label the UN, which registered water as a human right in 2010 by 122 votes in favor and 41 abstentions, “extremist” – though it has to be said that, interestingly, one of the countries that abstained was Greece.

Greece’s abstention, however, might be less surprising if one considers the ongoing attempt in recent decades to privatize water supply and sewerage companies. Currently, the sale process of 51% of EYATh (Thessaloniki Water Supply and Sewerage SA) is under way, while EYDAP (Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company) is also scheduled to be offered up.  Abroad, Portugal’s national water supply company has also embarked on the course of privatization. David Hall, director of the Public Services International Research Unit, believes that the new push for water privatization “is manipulated by the austerity policies in public spending and the cutbacks on public services imposed more strictly in the countries subject to IMF and EU bailouts.”

A profitable business in spite of the crisis

EYATh was founded in 1998, following the merger of the Thessaloniki Water Supply Organization and Thessaloniki Sewerage Organization. In 2001 the company entered the stock market and was divided into the sector of EYATh of assets that manages infrastructures, and EYATh SA. Furthermore, a 25% is ceded from the State to individuals. The company serves the greater Thessaloniki region, that is over a million and a half of people. It is worth noting that EYATh supplies the cheapest water in Europe.

Greek public water supply companies are significantly profitable in spite of the crisis.

Taking advantage of a natural monopoly such as water, the company ensures large profits. In particular, during the period 2007-2011 it achieved a profit of 75,2 million euros, and in 2012 a profit 17,8 million euros. The company also has a reserve of 35 million euros. Indeed, according to the president of the workers’ union Mr. Archontopoulos, “municipalities and other big debtors owe over 50 million euros, which shows that the investor will make payments in a very short time.” Certainly, the company’s profits are associated with the wage cuts and personnel downsizing that has occurred in recent years, as no employees have been hired since 2003, when the last call for hiring was published. Thus, while in 1998 EYATh numbered 650 employees for a smaller population and area, it currently numbers 250, with only 11 plumbers for the whole city.

In any case, Greek public water supply companies are significantly profitable in spite of the crisis. Moreover, the State and municipalities owe to water supply companies a total sum of 356 million euros, a fact which sheds a different light on the paradox of privatization: the state will lose revenue from attributed dividends, while it will have to pay its debts to the new owners of the companies with the money earned from the sale. “The winners will be the new private owners and the citizens will be the losers,” MEP Kriton Arsenis told us.

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VIOME: A WORKERS’ EXPERIMENT WITH GLOBAL APPEAL

“No worker who is not a shareholder, no shareholder who is not a worker,” say the workers of VIOME (Industrial Mineral), a factory in northern Greece. Their plan to take over the factory and to manage it themselves has generated waves of encouragement and support throughout the world. In this report for UNFOLLOW magazine, Christos Avramidis and Antonis Galanopoulos investigate the background to current events, and ask what the future might hold for these workers and their plan, what the reaction of the Greek government is likely to be, and whether workers’ self-management is feasible in a capitalist context.

“You can’t? We can!” This is how the workers of VIOME (short for Viomichaniki Metalleutiki, Industrial Mineral) reacted to the decision by the management to close down yet another factory in the Prefecture of Thessaloniki.

VIOME poster. Caption reads: "You can't, we can!" (image via http://biom-metal.blogspot.gr)

VIOME poster. Caption reads: “You can’t? We can!” (image via http://biom-metal.blogspot.gr)

VIOME, a factory that makes chemical products for the construction sector, was established in 1982. It is a subsidiary company of Philkeram-Johnson S.A., owned by the Philippou family. Although in 2006 VIOME was still ranked among the 20 most successful businesses of northern Greece, 2008 marks the emergence of the first problems, due to the crisis in the construction sector, as well as bad decisions by the management.

In 2011, the Philippou family submitted a debtor’s petition for Philkeram. The consequences did not take long to appear within VIOME. In July 2011, the management violated the agreed timetable for the payout of the accrued sums. This was the first indication that the owners were abandoning the factory.

The workers reacted with repeated 48-hour strikes, and on 12 September began work retention. The idea of self-management was already being discussed in the first workers’ general assemblies. When it was submitted to a vote, it got 97%.

“No worker who is not a shareholder, no shareholder who is not a worker,” say the workers of VIOME

As soon as Philkeram went bankrupt, the entirety of its assets, including the shares and the real estate of VIOME, passed to the trustee for liquidation. At the tripartite meeting that was held at the Ministry of Labor in November 2011, in the presence of Deputy Minister Yiannis Koutsoukos, vice-president of the group Ms Philippou, made it clear that she did not intend to operate the factory again.

“From that moment on,” says VIOME Union Chairman Makis Anagnostou, “we brought out our own banner, and with the basic slogan ‘Not another 70 unemployed workers – Direct re-operation’, we went on demonstrations and strikes”.

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