Thousands of farmers from across Greece staged a protest rally in central Athens on Wednesday against a new round of tax regulations introduced this winter as part of the four-year program of austerity and reform policies aiming to deal with the economic crisis.
In the third week of a nationwide mobilization which so far has been limited to symbolic roadblocks with tractors along national highways, unionists representing farmers from several parts of the country marched peacefully to the parliament chanting slogans with their demands.
Faced with changes in taxation which increase their tax burden significantly (up to three times compared to the past in some cases) and high energy costs which push up the production costs amidst recession, according to their argument, farmers are demanding increases in tax-free thresholds and measures to help them pay off their debts.
"Down with policies which wipe out small farmers," read banners raised on Syntagma square in a replay of previous protests which have become sort of an annual tradition for decades each January and February in Greece, in a season when farmers do not have much work to do, as local analysts noted.
Demonstrators on Wednesday claimed that their financial standing is worsening each year passing by. They asked that producers with annual revenues of up to 40,000 euros (55,000 U.S. dollars) should be exempt from keeping account books and that all should be protected by the threat of seizures of properties.
"Today's rally is the culmination of a three-week mobilization nationwide with farmers protesting at road blocks. We ask the government to take back the new tax regulations which will give a death blow to all poor farmers and stock breeders," Michalis Krokos, General Secretary of the farmers union of the southern Greece Argolida prefecture told Xinhua on Syntagma square.
"We have the same demands, as last year, and we also fight so that the Finance Ministry and the government will take the new measures back for improvement. The government's policy does not benefit small farmers, but opens the way so that large multinational companies will take over agricultural production," he argued.
"We have working people by our side, since on a daily basis we guarantee the sale of economic and safe products in contrast to the products of multinationals," Krokos added.
Farmers were joined in Wednesday's march by representatives of trade unions of other sectors of the economy and opposition Left-wing parties. Some 5,000 people took the streets of Athens, according to estimates by police.
On the other hand, the government responds that at the moment, as Greece is still struggling to leave behind a severe debt crisis and restore growth in the context of bailout agreements with international lenders, there is no room to maneuvers.
The reply unionists receive in meetings with ministers this February, as it happened last year, is that there is no way to satisfy their demands, since all taxpayers should bear a fair share of the tax burden.
The average Greek household has lost about a third of its income since 2009 after rounds of cuts on salaries and pensions and tax hikes implemented to slash deficits, boost the competitiveness of Greek economy and lay the foundations of a healthy economy.
"The government must answer whether it wants to keep agricultural production in the hands of poor farmers or aims at our elimination and replacement by others. The question is simple. They should respond so that people know what is going on," Krokos insisted.
Iakovos Panorios, an elderly farmer and fisherman who arrived in Athens on Wednesday from the Aegean Sea island of Sifnos, backed the request.
"I came here for one purpose, to honor all young and old farmers, because they work hard out there in the fields day and night. I say that because I am not strictly a farmer. I am also a fisherman. I have two professions," he told Xinhua, explaining that he is obliged to do so to meet his family's needs.
Panorios is determined to continue protesting until his voice is heard by officials.
"I will have all farmers lining up their tractors here across this square so that we can get the job done as it should be done," he said, as other leading unionists were warning with culminating protests in coming days in case of a new deadlock in the new talks with the government.
"We are here to stay. We will not back down. Today we came on foot, tomorrow on tractors" read leaflets distributed to passerbys in front of the parliament building.