Cleaning ladies first winners in new anti-austerity Greece

Athens (AFP) - The reinstatement of the cleaning ladies at Greece's finance ministry was perhaps the most symbolic measure announced by the new anti-austerity government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Wednesday.

In news greeted with tears, the women were told they could return to their jobs that were cut in September 2013, as the radical new government began rolling back money-saving measures.

"We've got justice. We were nothing more than mere numbers for the troika but we showed courage and determination," said one of the women, Katerina Kapodistria, employing the terms Greeks use for its creditors the IMF, EU and the European Central Bank.

The protest by what was originally 600 cleaning ladies became one of the emblems of the austerity years in Greece, as they camped outside the ministry in central Athens during burning summer days and chilly winter evenings, their mops and buckets visible for all to see.

Several times they clashed with security forces as discontent spilled over into violence on the streets.

The women's cause struck a chord with the Greek public and it has even been reported that left-wing British director Ken Loach has contacted them about turning their epic struggle into a film.

The radical Syriza party made the women one of its cause celebres -- and on Wednesday, after being swept into government in place of the unpopular conservatives of New Democracy, it kept its promise to put the women back to work.

They celebrated the news under their scruffy improvised shelter adorned with a portrait of Cuban resistance leader Che Guevara.

"History is written through disobedience," shouted one of the women through a megaphone.

Yanis Varoufakis, the media-friendly new finance minister who characteristically took office dressed in a casual blue open-necked shirt, said it would be simple to find the money to pay their wages.

"One of our first moves will be an immediate and spectacular reduction in the expenditure of the ministry which will allow the cleaning ladies to have their jobs back," he said.

Only 300 of the women will be re-employed -- the others have either found other work or retired.

"Under the new government we expected a better life for the poorest," said Lilly Giannaki.

"We also expect the young to have a better future. So many of them have moved abroad. We hope things will now improve for everyone in our situation," said Hara Petsiou.

When Varoufakis strolled into the ministry for the first time, rucksack on his back, he was cheered by the cleaning ladies. For the first time for a long time, the police were nowhere to be seen.

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