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19 July, 2017

How could we cope if capitalism failed? Ask 26 Greek factory workers

You could call the men and women at Viome factory workers, but that wouldn’t be the half of it. Try instead: some of the bravest people I’ve ever met. Or: organisers of one of the most startling social experiments in contemporary Europe. And: a daily lesson from Greece to Brexit Britain, both in how we work and how we do politics.

At the height of the Greek crash in 2011, staff at Viome clocked in to confront an existential quandary. The owners of their parent company had gone bust and abandoned the site, in the second city of Thessaloniki. From here, the script practically wrote itself: their plant, which manufactured chemicals for the construction industry, would be shut. There would be immediate layoffs, and dozens of families would be plunged into poverty. And seeing as Greece was in the midst of the greatest economic depression ever seen in the EU, the workers’ chances of getting another job were close to nil.

So they decided to occupy their own plant. Not only that, they turned it upside down. I spent a couple of days there a few weeks back, while reporting for Vice News Tonight on HBO, and it now looks like just an ordinary factory. Behind the facade, it has become the political equivalent of a Tardis: the more you look inside, the bigger the implications get.

For a start, no one is boss. There is no hierarchy, and everyone is on the same wage. Factories traditionally work according to a production-line model, where each person does one- or two-minute tasks all day, every day: you fit the screen, I fix the protector, she boxes up the iPhone. Here, everyone gathers at 7am for a mud-black Greek coffee and a chat about what needs to be done. Only then are the day’s tasks divvied up. And, yes, they each take turns to clean the toilets.

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