There’s a new sheriff in town (*)

(*) Athens News 14/Feb/2011 page 9

There’s a new sheriff in town
by Kathy Tzilivakis 13 Feb 2011

MICHALΙS Halaris has probably one of the toughest jobs in Greece at the moment. With increasing numbers of Greeks out of a job and employers using the country’s economic crisis as a cover to cut salaries and reduce hours, Halaris must crack down on labour law violations.
Halaris heads the country’s Labour Inspectorate (SEPE). And he’s facing some very daunting challenges, which is why the government has decided to assign more people to his office and give inspectors more teeth.
Ruling Pasok last week unveiled new draft legislation aimed at strengthening and sharpening the powers of labour inspectors nationwide. Parliament is expected to vote on the bill by the end of the month.

From his fifth-floor office overlooking Klafthmonos Square in downtown Athens, Halaris, a former fire department official, says the new law will put more inspectors on the street to smoke out ruthless employers. He also said new mandatory employee time cards will help bring order to the “anarchy” of undeclared work in Greece’s labour market.

Athens News: How will the provisions in the draft law help you at the labour inspectorate?

Michalis Halaris: The bill will introduce the employment card [karta ergasias, an electronic time card for all private-sector employees]. This, in combination with the labour inspectorate’s new powers to levy fines on the spot, will greatly help us crack down on undeclared work.

What’s the employment card all about?

Each and every business will have to have it. The machine that reads the cards will be directly connected [online] with us, IKA [the social insurance fund for private sector workers] and the OAED [Greek Manpower Employment Organisation]. This will finally allow us to crosscheck whether a worker’s employment is declared and legal.
It will also save employers from having to personally submit paperwork after each and every new hire and work contract.
How many businesses will have to comply with this new measure?
All 910,000 businesses in Greece.

The programme is slated to begin in July. Employers who adopt this new scheme will have a discount of 10 percent on their social insurance dues.

Can such a time card system be implemented in every type of business, considering not everyone is a 9-to-5 office worker who can simply punch a clock in and out?

We will implement it in such a way that it suits each and every business. It doesn’t matter to us if employees do not work in a 9-to-5 job. After all, the labour inspectorate office will be working around the clock.

How can punch clocks and time cards help you fight the informal economy?

I’ll give you an example. This new system will finally let us crosscheck information between various offices. We’ll be able to know whether a worker who is registered as unemployed with the OAED is working. This is something we can’t do now.

What’s the size of the informal economy in Greece?

For the first time ever, we have published statistics on the less visible, informal sector workers. They make about 25 percent of the country’s labour force.

This means one in four workers is either undeclared or is not receiving the wage she is legally entitled to.
The IKA social insurance fund is losing about six billion euros a year as a result of this situation. Taking these numbers into consideration, even a small dent in the percentage points would make a very big difference.

Most of the current news about the effects of the economic crisis on jobs and workers’ rights is negative. Is there anything to smile about?
It’s clear we are moving away from the conventional model of an eight-hour day job and moving towards part-time employment [this can include anything from a six-hour day job to a three-day working week].
The rules of the game are definitely changing.

Personally, I believe employers are making bad use of the part-time employment option. I believe the situation needs about two years in order to strike a better balance in terms of full-time and part-time jobs.

Has the number of complaints increased?
Yes, it has. Most of the complaints are submitted collectively through labour centres because individual employees are often too afraid to come forward.
This is also why we have launched the 15512 hotline number. Operators work the phones daily between 9am and 1am. I would like to stress that we also accept anonymous complaints.

What are the most common complaints?
Most of the complaints have to do with lost wages from overtime work and Christmas bonuses.

What amount of fines has your office levied?
I have the latest statistics right here: a total of 18,300,000 euros’ worth of fines was levied last year for labour law violations and another nine million euros of fines to employers who employed undeclared workers.
Undeclared work has increased five percent since 2009 and jumped 40 percent since 2008 - the year before the economic crisis.
I would prefer not to give out a single fine and for labour law to be fully implemented.

We rang in the New Year last month with a hefty 1.5 million euro fine against a big bank for a series of labour law violations. That’s about 10 percent of the total amount of fines levied last year.

Are employers becoming more prone to violate labour law?
There are many factors to take into consideration. Most employers are not very well informed about their obligations under the labour law, which, I would say, is so complex and chaotic. This is why we will organise seminars and publish information pamphlets.
However, there are also many cases of employers who violate labour law on purpose. Some are incorrectly advised by their accountants.

As regards undeclared work, is this mainly a problem of undocumented migrant workers?
Not really. This is a myth. Based on our data, only 35 percent of undeclared workers are immigrants. The majority are Greek.

What about age?
Here we see the two extremes. They are either young people or the elderly - pensioners probably working to supplement their income.

In one word, how would you describe the state of the labour market?
30,936 onsite inspections in 2010
366 inspectors nationwide
18,313,574.69 euros paid by employers in fines
875,952 new hires in 2010
586,281 of all new hires