At a makeshift protest camp near Greece’s Finance Ministry, a group of cleaning women punched rubber-gloved fists in the air to celebrate what they see as victory over mighty Germany and the International Monetary Fund.
Laid off from government cleaning jobs under Greece’s austerity program, the women’s nearly two-year full-time vigil has moved the leftist-led government to give them their jobs back–in defiance of the country’s creditors.
The German-led lenders see nothing to celebrate. Viewed from Berlin and Brussels, the move to rehire the 595 cleaners and thousands of other laid-off government workers is a rollback of economic reforms suggesting that Greece, now ruled by the left-wing Syriza party, isn’t sticking to its austerity commitments.
The cleaners agree, and welcome the prospect.
“It is a small victory that paves the way for bigger ones,” said Evagelia Alexaki, a 58-year-old cleaner who has been active at the live-in protest camp in central Athens since losing her job at a Finance Ministry building on the island of Corfu two years ago.
When she left for the capital city in 2013, she told her two adult sons she wouldn’t return to Corfu until she had won her job back. “We believed in this from the start. So did all of the ladies here,” she said.
The cleaners’ 20-month-long, 24/7 protest camp–thought to be the longest demonstration in Greek history–became a cause célèbre for Greeks who feel ordinary workers have borne the brunt of the crisis.
Emotions were high on Monday as cleaners and their sympathizers gathered at the protest camp outside a ministry building in Athens, festooned with protest banners and a photo of Latin American revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
The cleaners, who all worked at offices belonging to the Finance Ministry around the country, are among 3,900 laid-off government workers that Syriza is rehiring, reversing cuts made by previous Greek governments at creditors’ behest.
Officials in the rest of the eurozone see the rehirings as the latest example of the Syriza-led government reversing economic reforms and acting without lenders’ consent, complicating Athens’ bid for desperately needed bailout cash.
Unless Greece secures further aid soon from its EUR245 billion ($273 billion) bailout program, the country might default on its debts as early as June.
Greece’s next challenge is on Tuesday when the country is due to repay a EUR750 million loan from the IMF.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, speaking ahead of a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels on Monday, expressed his solidarity with the cleaning ladies and promised more rollbacks of austerity measures.
“We remind (creditors) that our government has a different perception of what constitutes a reform,” Mr. Varoufakis said.
The lenders aren’t amused. “Rollbacks in Athens are more concrete than readiness to negotiate the completion of the current program,” said a senior European official in Brussels.
Syriza officials paraded by the protest camp, with some of them stopping to give interviews to the party’s radio station Sto Kokkino (“In the Red”), which was broadcasting live from the spot for much of the day.
In the evening the cleaners were due to serve food they had prepared to passersby in gratitude for public support during the protest. Since Sept. 2013, cleaners have slept in street-side tents through sun, rain, storms and even snow.
“The love of the people was amazing,” said Anna Chyrsikopoulou, a 45-year-old laid-off cleaner, who juggled odd cleaning jobs with protest participation.
“There were times when teenagers would come past and give us their two euros as a way of supporting our cause rather than spend it on a coffee for themselves,” she said.
Syriza officials say the rehirings are within an allowance of 15,000 public-sector hirings agreed with creditors for this year. Greece’s opposition conservatives say the government is squandering opportunities to upgrade the civil service.
“The high number of civil servants should be replaced with a better level of staff, in areas where there is a real need, like in hospitals and other crucial state sectors,” said Costas Karagounis, a lawmaker for the conservative New Democracy party, which governed Greece until its election defeat to Syriza in January.
But the rehirings, especially those of the cleaners, are a popularity boost for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. On Monday the government told the cleaners they would be hired for an eight-hour working day, longer than their previous four-hours-a-day contracts.
“I believe that Mr. Tsipras wants justice. He is a simple person who reaches out to the worker,” said Mandalena Trianti, a 52-year-old cleaner who voted for Syriza in January’s elections. She says she will now return to her previous job: cleaning the offices of a police financial-crimes unit.
Not all Greeks support the government’s help for the laid-off public workers. With the country’s army of unemployed numbering some 1.2 million–about a quarter of the workforce–some see Syriza as unfairly helping a select few government workers, while those who lost their jobs in the private sector face a worsening economy.
“It is the same thing we have seen in the past: The government is taking care of some people while ignoring others,” said Theodoris Lambrou, a 50- year-old restaurant owner. The privately contracted cleaning ladies who have been cleaning Finance Ministry buildings will now be out of work, he points out. “Who will take care of them?” he said.