Jobless Greeks Reconnect Shut Power; Use Makeshift Devices

unpaid greek electric bills

The tragedy of an unemployed Serbian mother who lost her 13-year-old daughter to carbon monoxide when they had to turn to using a makeshift brazier for heating because their power was turned off shocked many Greeks, and others without work are using underground electricians to unlawfully re-connect their disconnected electricity.

Bloomberg reported that there’s widespread defiance across Greece, especially as winter sets in and many, buried under pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and forced into record jobless ranks, have decided they won’t go cold while the rich stay warm.

Kostas Ioannidis, an unemployed metalworker with an ailing mother and disabled wife, can’t afford electricity. So he steals it instead, the agency said.

Like thousands of other Greeks, Ioannidis had his power disconnected because he couldn’t pay his bills. He owes 2,700 euros ($3,668) and can’t make even the 150 euro monthly payments he negotiated with the power company. When his electricity was cut off in October – for the second time in two years – he illegally reconnected it, jury rigging the cables.

“I have lost my father and my younger brother and I don’t want to lose my mother,” said Ioannidis, 55, in an interview in his mother’s small apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Thessaloniki. “My mother’s health is more important to me than being legal.”

Losing electricity is another hardship facing Greece’s unemployed, who now number 1.37 million, or 27 percent of the population able to work. There were 257,002 disconnections because of nonpayment of bills in the first nine months of the year, putting the country on pace to surpass last year’s total by 5.4 percent, according to the Regulatory Authority for Energy.

The disconnections have spawned a movement of underground electricians who illegally restore power for themselves and others. About 1 in 10 homes will be reconnected without authorization this year, according to the Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator S.A.

HEDNO, the power distribution company, has confirmed 3,500 instances of power theft in Greece and has taken 310 cases to court, Melina Kalampoka, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. The company wants to avoid prosecuting low-income or other “socially vulnerable” families, she said.

“These illegal reconnections have many negative effects and consequences very often unrecognized, starting with the fact that power theft carries deadly risks,” Kalampoka said. “At the same time, these actions are unfair towards all the other legitimate electricity consumers.”

Unlawfully restoring power is an understandable form of resistance against financial injustice, Euclid Tsakalotos, an economist at the University of Athens and Member of Parliament from the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party told Bloomberg.

“We see civil disobedience as a bona fide part of European culture,” he said.

Greece has virtually no safety nets to protect the vulnerable and now the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader and his coalition partner, PASOK Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos are squabbling over whether to end a ban on foreclosures and let banks confiscate homes of people who can’t afford to pay because of crushing austerity measures.

It was Venizelos, who while serving as finance minister in a previous government, doubled property tax bills and had them put in electric bills under the threat of having the power turned off for non-payment.

Ioannidis, the unemployed metalworker, said he owes 360 euros in property tax as part of his debt to the power company. His electricity was first cut in May 2012, and then restored a week later only after he borrowed 600 euros to pay the debt and start monthly payments of 150 euros. The power was cut again in October when he fell behind.

“I can’t pay 150 when my income is 250,” said Ioannidis, who lives off his mother’s pension and his wife’s disability payments. “I shouldn’t eat?”

When his power was shut off a few months ago, Ioannidis reconnected it, using skills he learned while working for the telephone company.

He said he didn’t know how to reattach the meter, and as result, he expects any penalty he faces to be stiffer. “The next step for me is prison,” he said with a shrug.