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Clouds are gathering overhead, a sign of yet more unseasonal rain. Everyone says that it should not be raining at this time of year. But it is, and it is affecting already poor turnovers in retail and tourism. Ironically it is the very thing that attracts most people to Greece, i.e. beaches, quaint cobblestone streets lined with small shops & open air coffee houses/restaurants, that hinders its businesses during bad weather. Everything good takes place outside! And the rain makes it not so good…

The news shows beaches with neat rows of loungers and umbrellas with clear deep turquoise water softly lapping at the shore. It is as beautiful as it always was except for one thing…it is completely empty, even on the rare sunny days we have had in the past weeks. Locals mostly cannot afford the 2 to 5 euros required to hire a lounger so we swim at the pebble beaches and sit on big rocks although only the kids are swimming in the odd weather we have been having.

And while we are on the subject of the costs of going to the beach, the entry fees for the EU approved ‘blue flag’ beach here in Mytilene has doubled in price this year. A costly price hike at an inopportune time indeed, and one that has inspired a boycott of the beach (even if the weather is the good). There are a multitude of more humble beaches we can go to. We don’t really need shower facilities, fancy loungers and over-priced frappe.

Sigh… bad weather and boycotts… it is the stuff that inspires newspaper headlines such as ‘Tourists stay away…’ or ‘Fearful Tourists…” The locals look at one another quizzically. “Afraid of what?” they ask. Answering with the standard of “strikes and riots” only yields more quizzical looks.

Strikes and protests are a way of life here in Hellas. No one raises an eyebrow about them unless someone dies or is seriously injured. Plus there is usually ample warning about them so one can plan one’s life around them. One strike in particular has caught my attention.

The tour bus drivers union is on the second day of a four day strike at present. An action that may be inconvenient for tourists but is integral to the well being of the tour bus drivers and their families. Tour bus owners are demanding that the drivers take a 70% reduction in salary and benefits, or a 50% reduction for those whose packages were reduced by 20% already. Not only have employers been able to make (and get away with) such demands because of the ‘liberalisation of industries’ demanded as a condition of the EU Bailout, but there is no viable alternative for the drivers. With unemployment at 22%, they cannot just get another job. Tourism has been declining steadily for years, and the only tourists that really came (or are coming) this year took advantage of cut-rate prices. And the drivers’ salaries is where some of that discount is coming from. Unfair though it may be there is very little the drivers can do. The strikes are pure frustration and a last ditch attempt to save themselves from working for 70% less for doing the same job. I doubt that the strike will help them though. They rarely do…

This strike has been a real eye-opener for me. I never thought of discount tour packages in terms of human expense before. Coincidentally the newspapers are full of EU insistence that Greece must become more competitive. I now know what this means. The Greek tour buses will become sweatshops, and all other industries will follow suit.

Tour bus driver sweatshop???