Saturday, 14 December 2013

Landline (Σταθερό τηλέφωνο)

My husband recently asked me if I had the telephone number for a certain friend. I told him that I had already given it to him a while ago. He said that he tried to call them on the number he usually used, but he kept getting a "number you have dialled does not exist" message from the phone company.

"They've probably had the phone disconnected," I said to him, reminding him of other friends that have no landlines in their house: A_______ disconnected it nearly two years ago, B_______ disconnected it recently, and now C_______ is joining the list.

There's a lot of talk about the many Greek people living in their house without electricity, but that was never the first thing to go. When a Greek household realises that it's running short of money, there seems to a pecking order in their reductions. If they rent, do they stop paying? Never. If they smoke, do they stop smoking? No way. The first thing to go is the landline. Certainly, electricity might get disconnected eventually, but that isn't the first thing to go.

In times of desperation, Greeks begin to regard the landline as obsolete, a white elephant that these days rings only when a cellphone company wants to push a new scheme on you: a landline call generally means that someone is trying to sell you something that you don't need. We talk mainly on cellphones these days, and quickly, in order to save money (we are more likely to send txtmsgs and use facebook than talk on the phone). We only really need a landline to have an internet connection in our house, but since this costs money too, and it is connected to the obsolete landline, AND there are a number of other (free) ways to get onto the internet without paying, the internet connection also gets lost with the disconnection of the landline. So when a Greek family admits that they don't have a landline, you can be sure that they are feeling much more than the pinch - you can be sure that there might just come a moment when the electric will go too in those homes (but that will come much later). Right now, they find themselves close to the brink of poverty.

Landline companies in Greece are mainly private. Even OTE, the state phone company, is partly private (owned by Germans). When you don't pay private service providers your dues, they stop providing the service, quite swiftly, and then they start chasing you up to pay. The worst part is being chased up. This happens with cellphone service providers too, but the big difference between a cellphone and a landline is that use of the former can be controlled via a pre-paid card, but a landline requires subscription paid in arrears. 

This scenario is all quite different to what happens in a state company: in Greece, state companies don't swiftly stop providing the service, even when you owe them money. It's easier to come to an agreement with them, paying back debt with installments, at the same time as accruing more debt. Eventually the debt will become unmanageable: you were already in debt when you were accruing more debt, and you won't be able to pay it back, even through the previous arrangement. This goes on until you run out of money, a certain period of time passes (where you continue to accrue debt), and you are then finally disconnected. As the electricity provider is a state company, no one chases you up to pay back the debt.  It just remains frozen, until you decide to reconnect, by paying back your debt, or making arrangements to pay it back. Until then, you simply remain 'unserviced'. Only you will know about your debt unless you have frequent visitors to your house. But with the landline, everyone learns about it immediately: "The number you have dialled does not exist."

Ability to satisfy basic household needs for total, poor and non-poor population (rows) such as ability to afford: a one-week holiday / a protein meal every second day / emergency expenses up to €540 (columns). Income levels for each year are based on the previous year's records. The 'poor' are classified as those with an income equal to or lower than the poverty limit, while the non-poor are thoe with a greater income than the poverty limit (which is not defined here). Interestingly, they were not called 'rich'. The data was collected via a questionnaire (which means that respondents self-reported and may be unreliable), as part of the European Union - Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) survey. The full report (ELSTAT) contains a comparison table (Table 16) for other European countries, which  places Greece as the sixth poorest in living standards among 30 European countries. 

Poverty is measured in various ways in different countries, so we always have to be careful about what and how we are measuring. The Greek statistical service ELSTAT calculates poverty by the "deprivation of basic goods and services", which includes satisfying basic needs, taking a one-week vacation per year, eating meat, chicken or fish - or a vegetarian equivalent - every second day, having sufficient heating in one's home, affording purchases of durable goods such as a washing machine, car, color TV (etc), having a landline connection and mobile phone, being able to pay off loan installments and service bills (eg rent and electricity). ELSTAT recently found that it is not only the poor population that are unable to satisfy the above-mentioned, but also the non-poor.

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