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'They stole my money': Greek dreams of retirement turn sour

Last Updated May 19, 2017 at 7:00 am EST

ATHENS, Greece – It was supposed to be a time to look forward to. After decades of work, retirement was for many meant to provide a chance to slow down and enjoy life. A holiday, an evening out with old friends, the odd fishing trip.

Instead, many Greek pensioners say they are struggling to get by. The government has repeatedly cuts old age benefits as part of the country’s three international bailouts and many retirees now say they are at breaking point financially. Some have unemployed children they try to help on shrinking pensions, others are seeing rising taxes eat into lifetime savings.

A new austerity bill approved in parliament early Friday cuts their pensions even further, putting their plight in focus.

Greece once had a generous pension system — too generous to be sustainable, especially with an aging population. Retirement was possible from as early as the age of 55 after 30 years of work. Many had extra perks: public sector employees could retire as early as 52. Some women with young children could retire with a reduced pension at 50.

But the financial crisis left Greece reliant on international creditors, who pushed for economic change — not least to pensions. The standard retirement age is now 67. Many early retirement provisions have been abolished. Including pensions, incomes have dropped 40 per cent over the last seven years of crisis.

Here is a look at the problem through the stories of four pensioners.

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Mina Griva, 78, widow and former factory worker

Griva’s husband, who worked in a steel plant in Greece, died eight years ago. Her initial widow’s pension of 998 euros ($1,110) and a 300 euro supplementary pension have been cut to 560 euros and 150 euros respectively.

“They’ve destroyed us,” said Griva, who now helps out daily at a municipal care centre for the elderly. “Pensioners are crying.”

A mother of five, she uses her pension to help her son, who’s been unemployed for five years. She moved out of her small Athens apartment to give it to him, and lives in a single room on the last floor of the building. Now, she avidly watches political talk shows on TV to figure out how much further her pension will drop.

Griva left Greece in 1964 and worked for 15 years in Germany, initially as a cleaner in a cheese factory and later working an ironing press in a clothing factory. Times were tough in Greece then, and she worked double eight-hour shifts to send money home to her family. She saved, and eventually had enough to secure homes for her children, and a small apartment for herself.

She thought she was securing her family’s future. “We left here to build something,” said Griva.

Instead, the austerity measures ate into their lives, with new property taxes, layoffs and income cuts.

“Now you can’t even buy a bread ring for your grandchildren,” she said. “I don’t know where this will go. Things are very, very hard.”

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Parasksevas Kokkinakis, 71, former private bank manager

Kokkinakis’ gross pension when he retired in 2002 was about 2,400 euros. It’s now 1,100 euros. He calculates that the new legislation will leave him with 800 euros or less.

“I wasn’t an employee of the state, getting state money,” he said. “Thirty-six years I worked, without burdening the state by one drachma, as the currency was then. Instead, the state came and took away what I worked for.”

Property taxes have risen but the real estate market is depressed so selling to raise money isn’t an option, and Kokkinakis says he’s burning through his savings just to pay taxes. Food prices have gone up, so he and his wife only shop for the essentials and keep an eye out for special offers. Things he could do almost without thinking before — buy new clothes, go out to dinner with friends — have ended.

Still, he counts himself among the lucky ones, as he doesn’t have college-age children to support. Instead, he and his wife care for their three grandchildren while their parents are at work.

“It never crossed my mind that there would be a time when this care-free period — let’s call it that — would turn into anxiety.”

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Fotis Milas, 66, former paper factory employee

Milas worked for 36 years in the sales departments of two paper factories before retiring seven years ago on a pension of 1,800 euros that’s been steadily cut to 1,000 euros.

He says he wouldn’t object to cuts of 100-300 euros if it was to help the poor, but an 800 euro reduction is too much. “This is theft, fraud, literally! Theft, I tell you. They stole my money.”

With higher taxes to pay on property he inherited, he struggles to make ends meet. His life has shrunk to his cramped living room in a small first-floor apartment, where he spends much of his days watching television and smoking.

“You can’t go anywhere. So you shut yourself off at home. Why? Isn’t it a shame? Didn’t I work? Didn’t they withhold contributions from me?” He says one of the few pleasure he has left is his daily coffee with friends.

The new austerity measures are likely to cut his pension to about 800 euros, Milas says. “I will start having a very, very hard time. At the moment, thank God, I’m not hungry. For now.”

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Paraskevi Koliambi, 60, former silversmith and widowed

Koliambi, worked with her silversmith husband hand-making decorative items and jewelry. Her husband died about 11 years ago, just as he was about to retire.

Her son took over the family business but it is struggling due to a dramatic fall in sales amid the financial crisis. Koliambi initially received a reduced widow’s pension of 780 euros, an amount that’s been trimmed to 760. The two annual pension bonuses she used to receive have also been cut. She doesn’t know yet how much the new measures will hurt.

“I see it as uncertain, the future,” she says during a visit to her son’s workshop, tucked away in a dingy back alley off of Athens’ flea market. “We’re trying to hold on. My son is really fighting to keep the business. …. Whatever we had set aside is all gone — on taxes.”

She puts whatever she can from her small pension toward helping her son, “with the hope that we can manage to keep this business, which is very, very hard.”