ATHENS — A mass protest by some 8,000 taxi drivers brought downtown Athens to a standstill on Tuesday as strike over moves to liberalise the industry wreaked further havoc in the busy tourist season.
They gathered in front of parliament without their yellow cabs as the transport minister briefed lawmakers on the controversial reform, which was demanded by the country’s international creditors.
Police put the number of protestors at around 8,000 and closed off roads within a 400 metre radius of the parliament building but there were major bottlenecks throughout the city centre.
A banner accused Greece’s top two parties of handing over the taxi sector to the country’s “plutocracy”.
One woman held a poster that read: “We are fighing in the street and we are not afraid of you”.
“I used to have 35-40 clients per shift. Now I get around 15 clients and go home with 30 euros net income daily after 10 hours of work, 30 days a month, nonstop. The crisis has turned people off cabs,” said Theodoros Carlos, a cab owner from Athens who attended the protest with his young son.
“I have no option but to come to the protests. My children are young, I want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them I fought for their future,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, after nine days of strike and not a single taxi in Athens, a government spokesman said on the radio that a proposal was on the way to break the deadlock.
The protest began in response to a government decision to deregulate the taxi sector as part of efforts to liberalise the nation’s struggling economy, a key demand of debt-laden Greece’s foreign creditors.
Taxi owners argue that full liberalisation will cause a cabbie glut and sink the value of their operating licenses, which until now were worth hundreds of thousands of euros.
“There are already 14,000 taxis in Athens and with the country in crisis, turnover is down 50 percent. We are unable to pay our taxes, social security and operation costs,” Costas Dimos, general secretary of the Attica taxi owners’ union, told Flash Radio.
Transport Minister Yiannis Ragoussis has been criticised by some ruling party lawmakers for ditching a previous reform draft agreed by his predecessor with the unionists before a June reshuffle.
“When the social environment is so flammable, it is forbidden to drop even a single match on the ground,” Socialist deputy Nikos Salagiannis, a former junior transport minister, told Real FM radio.
The unionists want the government to cap the number of taxi licenses in each of the country’s regions based on population.
Tour operators and the government have said that the protest has damaged the country’s reputation abroad at the height of the holiday season.
In the first days of the strike unionists blocked highways feeding into Athens, the capital’s airport and its port.
Threatened with arrest, they have since been gathering at road toll stations where they have been allowing cars to pass without paying.
The European Union and International Monetary Fund have demanded sweeping deregulation in various Greek labour sectors in exchange for multi-billion-dollar loans needed to save Athens from defaulting on its debt.
The tourism industry, vital to the country’s economy, desperately needs holidaymakers to visit through the summer high-season.