European Union Research Programmes in Greece: Precarity on End

In Greece, university researchers are treated as exploitable workers, only receiving freelance contracts. Even in the case of EU-funded programmes that legally bind universities to hire researchers with full-employment contracts, they blatantly refuse to do so, even though they stand to benefit through paid overheads. Instead, they contractually entrap researchers to conditions of precarity, marked by delayed payments and the withholding of a wide range of labour rights, such as full coverage of health and social insurance, work accidents, longer maternity leave, and unemployment benefit. Freelance contracts also mean no participation in departmental meetings, decision-making, supervising, and limited – if any – teaching.

This has been my experience with a Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellowship (Horizon 2020), a prestigious and highly competitive EU research fellowship, which I recently completed. A full-time research position for 24 months, the Fellowship was funded by the European Commission, whose regulations strictly require an employment contract for the researcher. As a second time Marie Skłodowska Curie (MSC) Fellow, I was shocked to see that my experience with the programme at a German university was radically different. In Germany not only was I granted all benefits of permanent staff in terms of the university’s contractual obligations and services, I also shared privileges and responsibilities vis-à-vis departmental affairs and academic/research opportunities.

My experience as a MSC Fellow at a Greek university was definitely a different affair. This bitter reality hit me early on with the refusal of the host institute to give an employment contract as outlined in the grant agreement and regulations of Horizon 2020. According to the latter, only national law can allow for any diversion from the regulations, which was not applicable in this case. In 2016, law 4386/2016 was passed in Greece concerning research; article 93 allows universities and research institutes to contract EU-funded fellows with proper employment contracts releasing employers from any obligation to turn these positions into permanent posts after the completion of the programme.

Despite this legal adjustment, Greek universities en masse refuse to give researchers employment contracts. Rejecting my request to honour the grant agreement, my initial host took a "take it or leave it" stance. With the optimism of one unaware of the institutional and bureaucratic hurdles of Greek universities, I changed host, opting for a university that was admittedly more open to follow the ministerial pressures concerning EU regulations. Even so, my freelance contract was never changed. Indeed, this is not a singular case limited to one university and its corresponding 'Special Accounts for Research Funds Department' (ELKE), but a policy encountered across the country. What transpired from the first few months were major delays in payments, which included money for mobility, family relocation, research expenses, and living expenses.

My first pay check arrived at the end of month six (!) By that time, I had to borrow approximately 8000 euros to cover living expenses for me and my child. Most importantly, I had to financially support the programme’s research expenses, including research trips, conferences and workshops across Europe, all scheduled deliverables that could not be postponed. The delays continued until the very end, leaving me with outstanding debts of several thousand euros as I had to personally fund a planned international conference and exhibition; in the end some deliverables had to be changed or dropped due to these delays. Out of 24 months, I was only paid regularly for a span of six. A single parent and a foreign researcher in Greece, I had no established social or family networks to offer any kind of help or support on all fronts. During this time, I faced acute stress, insecurity, and financial woes that affected not only my research project but also my family life, to say the least.

These delays were linked, to an extent, to institutional problems and bureaucracy inherent in the ELKE system across Greece as well as to changes in the accounting system of ELKE recently introduced by law following Troika memoranda. More specifically, universities were made part of the national accounting system, a change which led to even more delays in payment. Another major problem was that many universities are in great debt or simply have no research money reserve to meet their requirements as hosts. This lack of research funds constitutes the norm rather than the exception in Greece right now. In this sense, to talk about academic precarity one has to also take into account the devastation Greece is suffering in the context of the EU and the debt regime of the Troika memoranda, affecting all aspects of the national sector including universities. This does not, however, absolve any university employer from such appalling treatment and disregard of labour rights. Universities should refrain from taking on projects they cannot financially support. The worse though is being in limbo, never getting a clear answer from the administration about payments, reinforcing the condition of insecurity, stress, and frustration.

The silence of ELKE administration is partly linked with the diffusion of precarity itself. Often understaffed (as in the case of my university), ELKE consists mostly of short-term contractor administrators. Any question concerning payment meets a wall, prompting a referral to the department’s head. This is not just a way to get rid of an angry beneficiary. It is deeply rooted in the precarious position they find themselves into, which makes them wary of assuming any kind of responsibility. That such delays are considered the norm and are tolerated by employees, colleagues, and the academic community leads to their perpetuation, rendering research in Greece a Sisyphean task.

In such research environment, tenured staff have undoubtedly an ethical responsibility to defend precarious colleagues and exert the needed pressure to their university departments, university and ELKE administrations. This pressure can take many forms, including refusal to supervise projects when the researcher’s rights are not adequately supported and respected.

In my case, I was lucky to have the full and invaluable support of my supervisor. Beyond the excellent academic input, the supervisor 'put a fight' for me from day one up until the completion of the programme, pressurizing administrators and management, achieving results through processes that were not pleasant. Yet, my experience in a Greek university has taught me that there is currently no 'nurturing' or support of research from an administration point of view. The researcher is faced with a solitary path paved with obstacles and insecurity, a path she walks alone in the absence of a union for the precarious or, if lucky, with the support and solidarity of colleagues and collectives such as this one (i.e. Precademics 85.42.1).