Photograph: Nadir Noori
Edit: Elvira Krithari
Translation: Gigi Papoulias
Loretta Macaulay came to Greece from Sierra Leone about 40 years ago, in the early 1980s. Without speaking the language and unfamiliar with Athens, she searched for work through an employment agency. She got a job as a housekeeper, “the only job a female immigrant could find.” They made her sleep in the basement, she says, where they stored the wine. She could only eat when her employers had finished their meal and after she washed the dishes and cleaned up.
She couldn’t stand it and left after about a month, without receiving any wages.
But here’s an important detail: Loretta Macaulay had paid the employment agency a fee before they had even found her the job, money which was never refunded to her. Today, as president of the United African Women Organization, she is trying to prevent other women from falling prey to similar treatment by employment agencies that largely target immigrant women.
How the job-finding system works
“In their desperation to find work, women continue to give money to these offices, usually €200,” Macaulay told Solomon MAG. They are forced to work without insurance. “Forget about IKA (social insurance)”, is the phrase she’s heard most often since she arrived in Athens; time off would only be 3-4 hours of rest a week. In most cases, the survival of an entire family back home depended on the salary these women would earn.
The illegal “supply” is not the only stage of exploitation. Many immigrants fall prey to a second scam after paying the fee to the employment agency. Once sent to work in a home, the conditions in the job description are very different than what they discover in reality, and many women are unable to bear it, so they quickly resign. In each case, however, the money they paid the agency up front is never refunded to them.
Such was the case with Esta, a close friend of Macaulay’s, who had agreed to pay half of her first month’s salary to an employment agency but was eventually forced to resign at the end of the first month. Thus, she decided to never use such an agency again.
It’s like a factory that makes thousands of euros every week, with victims who are women anxiously looking for a job. If they reject more than a few job offers, the agency tells them they can no longer cooperate with them and tells them to leave. If the women ask for their money to be refunded, the agency threatens them − especially those who don’t have a residence permit − and warns they’ll call the police.
Vania Nedelcheva, head of the refugee and immigrant support at the Centre of Athens Labor Unions (EKA), confirms this phenomenon to Solomon MAG. EKA has been hearing similar stories from women for years.
“Some are so shaken up by what they’ve experienced as domestic workers or home caregivers that they have fainted while recounting their stories. They are sent to specific families, with very difficult circumstances, so that they cannot bear it. I’ve heard of a case in which a home caregiver had to touch an open wound, in order to clean the patient’s stomach. In another case the elderly woman hit the caregiver, many elderly dementia patients become dangerous, and so on,” Nedelcheva describes.
Vania Nedelcheva offers a description of the women who are targeted: “Women who are alone, who do not speak Greek, newcomers to Greece, but also some who’ve worked for many years in homes but because of the crisis have suddenly become unemployed, unable to find steady work.”
None of them know that it is illegal to withhold money from an employee, but no one can, even if they wanted to, prove the offense, since everything happens “under the table.”
The Centre of Athens Labor Unions (EKA) has intervened in the past, calling on the police to ensure immigrants get their legal documents back, which had, of course, been illegally confiscated by the employment agencies. These documents would be held by the agencies until they received their share of the employee’s first salary − which for a live-in domestic, ranges from €450-650 per month, very often without a break, or €6-7 per hour for live-out help for women who literally scour Athens every day, cleaning houses.
“Until, about 2004, when there were jobs for immigrant women, they actually found houses to work in. However, during the crisis, when Greek women also started taking these kinds of jobs, the demand for immigrant domestic workers decreased and the agencies themselves preferred to always get the money up front, without being able to guarantee a job,” Nedelcheva points out.
Today, the large labor supply, which has no other way to enter the labor market, has led to the proliferation of these agencies. They take advantage of the unregulated labor framework that inevitably pushes thousands of women, domestic workers and home caregivers into the black hole of a shadow economy.
Many women are forced to borrow money from friends and relatives in order to pay the fee and then find themselves worse off and with no hope of finding a job.
“Many go to a second agency, they lose this money two and three times. Imagine, with 10-20 women a week, what the net profit is for the ‘owner’ of the agency,” Nedelcheva notes.
Illegal agencies known to “everyone” and “no one”
Many of the employment agencies are located around Omonia Square but also near Victoria Square and are easily accessible to immigrants who live mainly in the wider downtown area. A Google search reveals dozens of such businesses.
However, not all are legal.
A visit to the Ministry of Labor’s website is enough to find out that only 81 offices are currently operating legally throughout the country and have been licensed by the Greek state.
At the same time, in the “yellow pages” online, we found that hundreds of such agencies, which are not on the list of licensed agencies, are promising positions to job seekers. In short, not one in ten offices is legal.
The questions that remain are: why are the authorities unable to locate these agencies (when a simple internet search reveals many of them), but also how can this practice, known to every female immigrant for the last 40 years, continue today, unhindered?
“We have recorded more than 1,000 such agencies across the country. Most of them are located in private homes and you can’t intervene without a prosecutor’s order,” a source with the Labor Inspectorate (SEPE) told Solomon MAG.
The agencies that meet the requirements set by Law 4052 of 2012 for the Private Employment Offices (IGEE) are legal, and the law clearly stipulates that the “mediation for finding a job is carried out without any financial burden to the employee. This is the responsibility of the employer on whose behalf the IGEE mediates.”
Of course, according to all those who spoke to Solomon MAG on the subject, the €200 “finder’s fee” (at least) is the going rate in both the illegal and legal employment agencies.