Immigration

Migrants Stay Busy as Unemployed Greeks Spurn Menial Jobs


Immigrants pick berries in Nea Manolada

Photograph by Giota Korbaki/Getty Images

Immigrants pick berries in Nea Manolada

Until a few days ago, the fields around the village of Nea Manolada in the Peloponnese were a hive of activity as thousands of immigrant workers picked the strawberries that southern Greece exports across Europe. Now those fields are quiet.

On April 17 three Greek foremen at one of the strawberry farms fired shotguns at a large group of mostly Bangladeshi strawberry pickers who were demanding several months of back pay. More than 30 migrants were injured, and the supervisors, along with their boss, were arrested. As a result of the highly publicized incident, many foreign companies that import Nea Manolada strawberries have canceled orders, and migrant workers are staying away for fear of being caught without residence permits.Police check IDs in AthensPhotograph by Simela Pantzartzi/EPA/LandovPolice check IDs in Athens

It’s unlikely that unemployed Greeks will seek to replace them in the fields. Although the country has endured a deep recession since 2008 and the most recent data puts January unemployment at 27.2 percent, Greek citizens regard this type of menial, low-paying work as beneath them. “These are not the type of jobs that we do,” says Platon Tinios, an assistant professor at the University of Piraeus who specializes in labor economics. “We abandoned this type of work a long time ago.”

Photograph by Giorgos Moutafis/ReutersThere are just over 500,000 immigrants living in Greece legally, but it’s estimated that there are at least as many undocumented migrants. While illegal immigration has been a concern for years, it’s become a hot-button issue now that there are 1.3 million Greeks out of work. Still, despite claims by some politicians—notably those from the far-right—that migrants are stealing jobs, locals are wary of farm work and other labor-intensive jobs. The strawberry pickers, for example, are paid between €20 and €25 a day ($26 to $33) for around 10 hours’ work. They live mostly in makeshift huts cobbled together from plastic sheeting and pieces of wood, and have no access to toilets.

Lia Liapa has been searching for a job since January, when the home-appliance retailer in Athens where she’d worked for more than three years closed without warning. Even though the 33-year-old is eligible for unemployment benefits of a mere €359 a month, Liapa would not consider working on a strawberry farm. “I would take almost any job, even part-time,” she says. “But not one where I would be exploited, like the migrant workers. Greeks wouldn’t or couldn’t work in these conditions.”

A makeshift dormitory for field workersPhotograph by Antonis Nikolopoulos/Eurokinissi/AP PhotoA makeshift dormitory for field workersAbout half of the country’s 10.8 million citizens now live in cities, and most of them have little desire to trade urban living for a rural setting. “It is rare for Greeks to move for work,” says Tinios. Liapa says that while she’s not averse to the idea of leaving Athens, her fiancé cannot quit his job as a policeman: “I would consider moving to the countryside, but it’s difficult for us to leave when my boyfriend has a steady job.”

The bottom line: Even with unemployment at 27.2 percent, most Greeks won’t consider taking on work now performed by illegal migrants.

Malkoutzis is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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