Louise Cooper Finance economics markets retail business

My FOOC for Radio 4 on Greece…

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Or what I learnt during my pedicure about the state of Greece…

click here to listen..

My FOOC starts at 11mins through it..

Greece has been in the headlines now for almost a decade: economic collapse, mountains of debt, deep austerity, protests, riots and political instability.  So what has it been like to run a business during these turbulent years?  Louise Cooper went to the country to see for herself.
At the end of a day interviewing, I just wanted a bit of downtime and my nails were in need of some attention.  Some internet searching on the hotel’s wi-fi, and a few phone calls with the opening line, “Do you speak English?” and I had booked myself into Irene’s salon for a manicure and pedicure.
In the UK, when I go to my local nail bar, I get asked about my holidays.  Not so in Greece – most clients generally can’t afford to go away anymore.  Irene tells me her customers usually end of talking about their money worries and the country’s decline.  That and the monthly calls from the bank about missing mortgage payments.  We were told to buy homes, she says, and now we can’t afford them. 
Since the start of the crisis in 2010, Irene has had to cut her prices by half to try and survive.  She had to close her second nail salon and make staff redundant.  And she works ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, for very little cash – just enough to pay her bills.  All I do is work, sleep and eat she laughs.
And so she takes business whenever she can get.  Although the salon usually closes early evening, she remained open for both me and a regular client, Vlemma, a commercial lawyer.  And so the three of us found ourselves sitting in Irene’s salon at nine at night discussing Greece’s economic woes.
For Irene, business is still declining. January and February were terrible months she says and last Christmas – a time when many spend a little more to look good – was the worst ever.  Irene laughs after she tells me this.  But I point out that it’s actually not that funny.  With a shrug of resignation and a further beaming smile she responds, I no longer care about the money. 
I ask her does she ever cry?  She used to, she admits, but after seven years, there is nothing I can do, nothing I can change.  Like a river I cant control where I am going. I have learnt to meditate she adds.
Lawyer Vlemma though is less forgiving, visibly furious with the country’s plight and the political class that she says, wasted EU money that was supposed to develop the country’s economy.  And was instead used for public sector jobs and pay.  They paid bonuses for turning up to work, she claims, irritated and annoyed. Its Greece’s own fault.
Unlike many professionals I always paid my taxes, she states.   I was laughed at by my colleagues, ridiculed, for doing the right thing.    Like Irena, though, she can’s see an end to the country’s problems and wouldn’t want the job of trying to sort it out.  Who would, she asks?
As I wait for my nails to dry,  now painted baby blue, Irene explains that when she answers the telephone many customers try and negotiate a lower price.   But I can’t cut prices, further, she says wearily, I have staff to pay and I don’t want to cut their wages.
The other thing customers always want to know is whether she is hiring.  In a country with 50% youth unemployment, almost every customer has a niece or a daughter looking for work.  Irene gesticulates to a pile of CVs on her desk, a foot high.  I end up throwing them away, she remarks sadly.
Irene has cut costs – negotiating her rent down by 30% in three stages as business has gradually declined.  The building’s owner is a Greek ex-pat living in Canada.  Although she has been helpful so far, Irena fears there she won’t accept less rent in the future.  She doesn’t understand the problems back here, Irena notes.
And the government makes running a business even tougher – raising taxes to try and fill the gaping hole in the country’s finances.  This is the only time when Irena gets almost as annoyed as Vlemma:  the government takes half of everything I make, Irena criticises, with her only frown. 
And so like many Greeks, Irena takes cash and 30% of her business is now off the books.  I couldn’t survive without it, she says.  Customers with businesses understand, we all do each other favours.  They say don’t give me a receipt. 
Economists, analysts and journalists like me talk about the Greek economy using hard data – GDP, budget deficits, spending, taxation.  Normally in tens or hundreds of billions of Euros.
But chatting with Irena and Vlemma gave me the smaller scale human story behind the numbers.  I really enjoyed talking with them in this feminine space, about the real difficulties facing working women like me…
As I left, Irena smiled and thanked me.  I didn’t ask for a receipt.


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