Woman Asks for Rights, Gets Acid Thrown on Face
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ATHENS, Jan 5 (IPS) -- Around midnight Dec. 22, Decheva Elena Kuneva, a Bulgarian living in Greece since 2001, finished her shift and made her way home. For four years she had worked as a cleaner in the city railways, as employee of a company contracted by the public enterprise.
Employment for a female migrant brought exploitation that Kuneva was not willing to accept.
She often stood up to her employers to demand basic rights. Gradually, she organized workers around her, and became secretary of the Union of Cleaners and Home Helpers (UCHH). As a result, she got the worst shift hours, faced pressure to quit, and since last summer began receiving anonymous phone threats. Her mother, who worked for the same company, was laid off.
But Kuneva was not put off demanding rights for herself and for fellow workers. Someone decided to punish her.
That night two men threw sulphuric acid on her face as she headed home. She lost sight from one eye, vision from the other is impaired. Her face is badly disfigured.
A historian by profession, Kuneva, 44, came to Greece to earn an income for treatment of her only son, who was suffering from heart problems. Now she has lost everything she, her mother and her son relied on.
Fortunately she is not entirely on her own. "We cannot abandon her," Metaxia Stegoulea, president of the Federation of Private Employees, a centralised body of which UCHH is a member, told IPS. "I have not the slightest doubt that what happened to her is because of her union activity."
The bigger unions are now taking up the cause of the other workers. "The real issue is the regime under which these women have to work, below subsistence level wages," says Stegoulea.
They live in conditions of modern slavery, Vasiliki Tsiouni, vice-president of UCHH told the daily Eleftherotipia.
"All our working rights are denied, they do not pay security contributions for us, they do not pay us the hours we work for, they ask us to sign blank papers with income figures that we have never received, they demand we sign a resignation together with the employment contract so we can be laid off instantly without consequences, they do not pay us for overtime work, they do not buy us the rights for heavy and unhealthy labour, so we cannot get proper pension, they blackmail us with threats that we will be blacklisted."
Stegoulea said such labour exploitation is common among big private companies that dominate the sector. "If you observe the prices they offer for public tenders, they are always the minimum possible, it makes one wonder where they make their profit from."
Workers are never employed more than 30 hours a week, so companies do not have to pay increased contributions for heavy and unhealthy labour. Wages are often lower than agreed, or they are paid irregularly -- when they are paid at all.
More than 10,000 people are employed in this sector on an average wage of 560 euros. Companies like to employ migrant workers and women, since they are the most vulnerable.
Despite multiple pleas by unionists, regulatory authorities have failed to intervene effectively. And unions have not been that effective either. Alekos Kalivis, deputy chairman of the General Union of Greek Workers (GSEE) accepts that the union has not been able to support many workers in defending their rights.
"This is the case especially when it comes to sectors of extremely deregulated labour where there are no strong unions to protect very weak categories of employees. We have to respond to this situation in a better and more active way, especially since those who govern the sector increasingly employ organised crime's methods against unionists."