ATHENS (AP).- Greece's economic problems erupted at the country's best-known ancient site Tuesday, as unpaid cultural heritage workers heckled the country's culture minister during a tour of newly completed restoration work on the Acropolis.
Amid goggling tourists, about 100 protesters with bullhorns and banners pressed Pavlos Geroulanos to pay wages outstanding for up to 16 months and to renew their soon-to-expire contracts. The demonstration ended peacefully after the minister conceded that many of the demands were "absolutely justified," and promised action on the delayed pay.
Greece is locked in a major debt crisis, and this month avoided bankruptcy by the skin of its teeth with a 110 billion ($136 billion) rescue package from EU countries and the International Monetary Fund.
In return, Athens agreed to slash pensions and civil service pay, while raising consumer taxes in an effort to boost lagging revenues.
But contract culture ministry workers, used by successive governments to cheaply plug essential needs, feel doubly cheated.
"I haven't been paid for nearly a year now, and they say they won't renew our contracts in October," said Apostolos Tseklimas, 60, a laborer at the Marathon ancient site working on contracts since 2001. "It's as if we count for nothing. I have four children, and need to work for another year to get a full pension."
Conservation technician Ioanna Zervaki said the ministry has not hired any full-time workers in her field for years, relying instead on contract employees to get the work done. Contract workers are considered the lowest ranking civil servants in Greece.
"Despite my 10 years experience with the ministry in this field, I have no chance at all of getting a full-time job," she said.
Protest organizers said about 1,500 ministry contract workers faced similar problems.
Despite the crisis, the government has pledged to continue with the massive Acropolis project, which started in the 1970s and is expected to continue for at least another decade.
Geroulanos said the work would be mostly funded by EU aid which accounted for roughly 33 of the 43 million spent since 2001.
"Very significant funds have already been spent, and that will continue," Geroulanos said.
Built on a low hill at the height of ancient Athenian glory, the Acropolis monuments have suffered over the past 2,500 years from war, weather, vandalism, restoration errors and most recently air pollution. Most of the surviving sculptures have been removed to a new museum next to the ancient citadel, although 14 original carved marble slabs remain on the Parthenon.
Geroulanos spoke under the ruined 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple, where ministry workers recently dismantled, conserved and reassembled eight of the 46 towering marble columns that initially formed a rectangle around the building and propped up the roof.
The colonnade survived intact until 1687, when a besieging Venetian army's artillery blew up the Parthenon used as a gunpowder store by the defending Turkish garrison. The eight columns on the temple's northern side were first restored in the 1920s, in a well-meant effort that caused problems when iron rusted and expanded, cracking the ancient marble.
Crews are now preparing to tackle the western part of the temple, while future work will include rebuilding the internal marble walls to a height of about three meters (10 feet), and removing a concrete floor installed to protect the original marble pavement.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.