Apostolos Kapsalis: “We are travelling in uncharted and stormy seas”

We sat down for a long discussion with the researcher of the Institute of Labor for the phenomenon "Manolada", the realities of migrant workers in Greece, and the challenges that the pandemic brought -and will bring- not only to the agricultural production, but the rights of the ones ensuring it.
Apostolos Kapsalis: “We are travelling in uncharted and stormy seas”
We sat down for a long discussion with the researcher of the Institute of Labor for the phenomenon "Manolada", the realities of migrant workers in Greece, and the challenges that the pandemic brought -and will bring- not only to the agricultural production, but the rights of the ones ensuring it.
February 17, 2021

Photographs: Iason Athanasiadis
Illustration: Fanis Kollias
Translation: Gigi Papoulias

 

Exactly one year ago, with the outbreak of the pandemic, migrant land workers, both in Manolada and in the rest of the country, were faced with a new situation: unemployment.

Because of limited exports, demands for labor decreased, and there were fewer opportunities to earn a daily wage. Thus, for the first time, there was no overexploitation and overtime, but instead, a lack of income and often the exclusion of migrant land workers in makeshift camps where they lived.

This was one of the many interesting points during Solomon’s discussion with Apostolos Kapsalis, a researcher at the Institute of Labor (INE), which was established by the General Federation of Greek Workers (GSEE), and a postdoctoral researcher at Panteion University. Today, we are publishing the full interview, in the context of Solomon’s investigative series of reports on the realities of the labor market for immigrants and refugees in Greece during the pandemic.

Apostolos Kapsalis is the author of the book Immigrant workers in Greece: Labor relations and immigration policy in the era of the Greek financial crisis, published in 2018. Through his research and academic work, he explores the experiences of migrant land workers in various parts of Greece.

We talked to him about the issues and the realities of the labor market for migrant land workers in Manolada, Thebes, and Karditsa. We discussed the challenges posed by the pandemic in the new year, but also the paradoxes that prevail in domestic agricultural production.

Labor realities in Greece – where in order to work legally, dozens of land workers are registered as cooks and thousands of others must first secure a deportation order.

Mr Kapsalis, let’s start at the beginning. You’ve been involved with immigrant labor issues in the agricultural sector for several years. What are you currently working on?

At the Institute of Labor (INE), we’ve been focused on all categories of workers for years. We happened to become more involved with the issue of migrant land workers due to incidents and conditions in the Manolada region, where strawberries are produced.

There, for the past two years, we’ve been carrying out field research with colleagues, for broader political and/or union purposes, and for more specific investigations. Currently, I have two studies pending publication (in English).

The first is an investigation on the situation land workers in Manolada are facing, not only during their time working there but also during the months when they’re not. A question that hasn’t been answered until now is what do these people do from May onwards when the strawberry season is over? Do they disappear? Where do they go? And, are they facing the same problems wherever they go?

The second study focuses on the ability that Bangladeshi land workers actually have to solve their issues on their own, whether it’s problems with housing, employment, or legal issues. I think that now we have a general picture of how the system works in regards to agricultural workers in Greece, whether they’re workers who are permanently settled here, or they’re “recruited” by employers, or whether they’re seasonal workers.

Before we talk about Manolada, let’s clarify something. There’s usually a misconception about “recruited” workers and seasonal workers. What’s the difference?

People often confuse the following: “recruited” workers are not the same as seasonal workers. What is a “recruited” worker? It’s a process by which an employer can recruit employees from abroad.

How does this happen? Each Prefecture identifies where there are shortages of labor in the domestic labor market and an “invitation” is announced: that is, someone goes to the consulate of a country, not to recruit a specific person, but to employ a specific number of people.

Theoretically, this invitation covers everything from an office worker to an agricultural worker. The invitation stands for one year and secures a residence permit. But with seasonal work, the law pertains only to agricultural workers. But what are the specifics in this case?

For 90% of approvals for the recruitment process are for workers in the agricultural sector, in reality these two hiring formats coexist. And after so many years, it’s been confirmed that when it comes to the recruitment process, the agricultural sector is the prime labor market which absorbs this kind of worker.

So then, how useful is the recruitment process as a measure?

We know it’s a system that has failed. In fact, the relevant department in the Ministry of Labor recently conducted a survey which included questionnaires to all Prefectures. The recruitment process was assessed as a failed measure – even by the very executives who are responsible for determining the labor gaps and framework conditions.

And in fact, it is a deceptive measure. Because it doesn’t actually function for the purpose it was created for – to meet the needs of the agricultural sector.

What caused the recruitment process to be evaluated as a failed measure?

On the one hand, it’s a bureaucratic measure, but then again, there’s a lot of room for infractions. For example, a producer who has a certain number of acres, may recruit say, 20 workers, even though he might not need all of them. And so, the remaining workers are sent to work for other, smaller producers in the village. Such agreements are made.

In addition, under this administration, immigrants come to Greece via the recruitment process, but they never turn up at the place that employed them, and they simply use the recruitment process as a means to enter the country legally. Because they may, for example, have been here in the past and have lost their residence permit.

A third issue is that the employer is supposed to provide a letter of guarantee, which secures three months’ salary in advance, but we know that this is not the case.

Immigrant land workers have told us that their employers have asked them to return their salary advance because “this was the trick to get you here, it’s not certain that you’ll work for three months straight.” So, they are asked to return the bank check and are told that the employer will pay them every day, depending on their daily wage.

What about the other conditions? For example, land workers are supposed to be provided with decent accommodation.

Decent accommodation is a joke, there are not even any requirements by law for what constitutes “decent accommodation”. The employer is simply required to submit an E9 tax declaration form, confirming that he collects rent from a property.

It is not uncommon for, say, 40 different employers to declare the same 20 square meter apartment, and if you add up the employees housed there, it’s 150 people. Frauds like this have been committed. There are even allegations that some immigrants are brought into the country using fraudulent methods. The hotel industry has also become aware of this recruitment process, and last year the Dodecanese Islands Prefecture (where Rhodes is located) requested the need for 130 cooks, specialized in Indian cuisine.

Rhodes only has something like ten tourists from India. So that means each tourist will have 15 personal cooks?! It’s obvious, an employer wants to recruit 130 employees from India, for some reason. These employees could end up on the mainland in Marathon picking watermelons, but in theory they were hired as cooks in the Dodecanese Islands. The job specializations that are requested are not monitored and the way in which the labor gaps are determined is arbitrary.

So, for the recruitment process, how is the number of open positions determined?

Jobs are defined as two year-positions and are usually calculated based on the numbers from the previous two years. Thus, if for two years about 130,000 positions were offered, calculating a little more or less, it is decided, for example, that for the next two years about 140,000 positions will need to be filled.

Of that number, not even half are approved, and of those that are approved, not even 15,000 of those positions end up being filled.

So from what you’re saying, the following question arises. If the state says that this year, for example, we need an additional 140,000 agricultural workers; of these, 60,000 are approved, and 15,000 are actually filled. Who fills the other 125,000 positions? Are the fields not harvested? Is everything just left to rot?

The answer is that they are covered by undeclared workers who are already in the country. But there’s a problem with this, which large business owners, especially, have not solved. And it concerns the following:

Since 2015, when the tax code was changed, the expenses related to the payroll of land workers were deducted from your taxes. But if you can find workers who are already in the village, the vast majority of them probably won’t have a residence permit, thus, you won’t be able to declare them as legal workers (or give them ‘worker’s checks’ – a type of payment via check), and you will not be able to deduct their payroll expenses from your taxes.

So, one understands that large businesses especially need to find legal employees, but they cannot find them. But by using the recruitment process, you get a legal employee. And once that employee file is open and active, whether actually working for the employer or not, the employer transfers money to his file.

In addition, it’s important to note that neither recruited workers nor seasonal workers are insured by worker’s checks. They receive health benefits and social security (IKA and EFKA) using the same method for all employees. In other words, it’s a bit of a mess. An employer may have an employee declared e.g., for six months. And whether he works or not, the employer pays his salary, the employer is told by the accountant the amount to pay, and adjusts it so that at the end of the calendar (fiscal) year, the employer can have large tax exemptions from payroll expenses.

An employer can’t easily do this with workers who are already here, because they are undeclared. Since they don’t have a residence permit, how can you declare them? That’s why some people choose to hire using the recruitment process even though it’s bureaucratic, otherwise they use the worker’s check as a solution. In 2016, the government provided a solution to this issue as well.

In order to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the Manolada case, the government created Article 13A, the so-called “illegality” (a sort of “para-legality”).

Article 13A of Law 4251/2014 has provisions regarding the “employment of illegally residing third-country nationals in the agricultural sector”. What does this specify and why is it referred to as “para-legality”?

The only way for an immigrant to work under Article 13A and be insured using a worker’s check, is to be “deportable”. If he isn’t, he must receive a declaration order against him.

This in practice means that, for example, someone is in the country illegally. An employer wants to hire him, so the immigrant gets a deportation order against him from the police station. But a suspension of deportation is issued because the employer hires him to work under Article 13A. However, after six months, as soon as his job is completed, the immigrant has a deportation pending against him.

As a result, thousands of undocumented immigrants can be legally recruited, with a deportation suspension, and their employer can pay them using worker’s checks for tax purposes. And this is why, in my study, I support the fact that there’s a decrease in the number of recruitment hires and seasonal workers, and an increase in the number of workers hired under Article13A.

Isn’t that rather odd? That you have to go through this entire process, with the issuance of a deportation order and then its suspension, so someone can work legally?

This is the worst part of it and we have demonstrated it. Why? Because until then you are not to be deported! So, they tell you that in order to work for six months you have to get a deportation order and then you have this hanging over you.

This is a kind of crude blackmail. And this obviously has many flaws, both legal and ethical. Because, instead of the state legalizing these people who are actually employed and working, and organizing the agricultural economy in a different way, the state is in fact, punishing the victim of the crime twice.

The state threatens you with deportation, but also tells you how to work for six months, so then the employer is telling you to behave, don’t take breaks, don’t talk back, because after the six months is up, all it takes is a phone call, and you’re sent back to Bangladesh or wherever you come from.

And he’ll never want to come to Greece again! We are talking mainly about Asian land workers, who come from far away, and their trip costs about $7,000-$12,000.

The funny thing is that although Article 13A was supposedly introduced in the context of combating forced labor, what remains is still a form of obligation and absolute dependence of the employee on the employer. It exacerbates the problem instead of solving it. These things only happen in Greece: a measure is created to deal with a predicament but in fact the measure only reinforces it.

Can land workers who are employed under Article 13A for six months, be re-hired for another six months under Article 13A by the same employer or another one?

It’s unlimited. A Ministerial Decision has also been issued that specifies the conditions, so that after seven years of permanent (legal) residence in Greece, one has the right to apply for residence for reasons of exception.

The worker’s check and Article 13A are a few of the necessary documents taken into account. So, the immigrants themselves are asking for these, because together with other administrative traces (e.g., the deportation order from the police, utility bills, tickets, etc.) they can apply for residency under certain conditions.

Since 2010, these reasons of exception are the only way to legalize an immigrant who has been here for years and does not have a valid residence permit. There are no legalization programs, either en masse as was the case in 2000-2010, or sectoral and local. The only chance to get papers in Greece is to have been here seven years and have supporting evidence that proves your presence in the country. So, the immigrants want it too.

And, in my opinion, this will increase in the coming years and the percentage of those who request employees via the recruitment process will decrease for the reasons we mentioned. That’s why I call Article 13A, (besides “para-legality”), I also call it “internal recruitment” – I recruit the guy next to me, the one I was supposed to “recruit” from abroad.

From Manolada to Karditsa

We talked earlier about the workers in Manolada and the question arose as to what they do when the strawberry season ends in June. What does your research show?

First, and contrary to what we previously believed to be true, when these workers leave Manolada, they don’t go off on their own, searching for work here and there until next February when the strawberry season begins again.

But, according to my research, they move by the hundreds or even thousands, within informal but organized networks, to specific regions of the country until it’s time for them to return to Manolada. Some move to neighboring prefectures in the Peloponnese for the olive harvest. Those who do not choose to go to a nearby region, may travel, for example, to Karditsa and pick peppers.

Before the pandemic I managed to travel and conduct research on Bangladeshi migrants who go from Manolada to Thebes for the onion harvest, and I’m looking into other regions as well. There they travel in search of work using mediators, who guarantee that they’ll work for the same employer.

I found that in Karditsa, there were workers who, in the thousands, have been going back to the same employer for three years. As they are with the same employer in Manolada. Therefore, there’s a stability in employment, a specialization in this sector, full-time employment during the year, not a large number of employers (maybe two or three per year) and most importantly, very different living conditions.

In terms of living conditions, what are the differences you found between the various regions?

Karditsa and Thebes, in relation to Manolada, the difference is day and night. In Karditsa and Thebes, the farmers (employers) rent houses, and a very small number of workers live there, in very decent conditions.

In Karditsa, an employer who happened to be present during an interview we were doing with a worker said, “I’m leaving, so that the guys can speak freely.” They have a break from 2pm to 5pm – something which does not exist in Manolada.

I asked the employer why they get a break, and he replied, “Don’t you rest? The sun is very hot here.” Of course, it’s even hotter here in the plains, than it is in Manolada. And don’t forget, we have to consider everything, in Manolada they work from February to June before it gets really hot. Here in the fields, in July, it’s 45°C in the shade! So the break is not just for humanitarian reasons, it is a matter of circumstances. Half of them would die.

One employer told us that for €200 a month he rents some old farm houses for the workers, but he doesn’t charge them rent. While for the shacks in Manolada, which aren’t even houses, they charge each worker rent. Extreme contradictions – it’s risky to make comparisons, because you might end up offending other people.

What are the reasons for the differences between these regions?

There are many reasons, but to be more specific, requires additional social and anthropological study.

Karditsa and Trikala have a great history of agricultural struggles. In the culture of the farmers in these areas there exists what we call respect for the man who works in the field. The Kileler uprising did not take place in the prefecture of Ilia (the region of Manolada), it took place north of Larissa (not far from Karditsa and Trikala). In the Greek countryside, there’s more of a farming culture one could say, among others, as in the past or even today’s nouveau riche culture.

Also, the money at stake in Manolada is huge, while that’s not the case when it comes to producing peppers and onions. I must say that we have to take into account these facts, plus the fact that in Thessaly, houses are available because inhabitants have migrated abroad, leaving entire villages deserted, while the villages in the Peloponnese are still inhabited by locals.

What are the main issues that Manolada faces?

Objectively, the number of employees in Manolada and Lappa is not manageable.

In total, last year in Manolada and the neighboring village of Lappa, we broke a record – there were 10,000 agricultural workers during peak season. This is a huge number for two villages.

And because shale was discovered in neighboring villages, if strawberry production continues to be dynamically exported, it’s very possible that we’ll have 20,000 workers coming to four or five villages in the coming years. We’re talking about large numbers, an entire city. Kalambaka has a population of 7,000-8,000 people and we consider it a major tourist destination.

What emerges, but requires further study, is that ultimately the problem in Manolada and what we talk about in regards to shooting incidents and forced labor is largely, as is often the case in immigration studies, a myth.

The big problem in Manolada is housing. Obviously, it’s also employment and insurance, because Greek immigration legislation is dealing with these issues, as we have explained so far. But this applies to the whole country, to all industries and all employees. Specifically, for Manolada, however, the problem ultimately lies in the issue of housing and living conditions. In Manolada and the wider area, there are no houses available for these people either to rent, or live rent-free.

Therefore, if we exclude all the other problems related to labor and insurance (which don’t only apply to migrants but also to young workers in our country), and if we exclude the objective difficulties of the profession because they work in the countryside exposed to the elements (but this also concerns the Greek salaried land workers as well), I think, in the end, that the problem in Manolada is mainly a matter of living conditions.

That is, if we somehow magically solved the issue of living conditions and housing in Manolada (with worker’s housing, containers, tents from the United Nations?), we probably wouldn’t have to deal with the issue again.

In Manolada, there’s the system of the “mastur” – the mediator. These people are compatriots, who have been in Greece for a while, know the language, and can connect the producers to the workers. From what you’ve seen in other areas, besides Manolada, are there similar systems that use mediators?

The system cannot work any differently because there is no organized process of matching, of identifying demands and supply. So, someone has to do it.

We were told that in Manolada, this issue is beyond control and the mastur is in fact an extension of the employer, who in many cases never even sees the employees. He doesn’t know their names, which are difficult to remember too. So he gives the money to the mastur and he distributes it as he sees fit. Usually there are no problems, although the mastur may sometimes keep something extra for himself.

In Karditsa, where I asked persistently (because I’ve been stuck on this issue), the mastur is a regular fixture. But there, I’ll say again, we don’t have big numbers. The mastur brings the employer ten people, not 150 or 200 as in Manolada, and in Karditsa the mastur doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and just supervising. Here, we’re talking about a more limited operation.

And when the number is smaller, it’s even easier. However, the mediator also takes care of transportation. In Karditsa we ate at a restaurant with a guy who is a mediator, who spoke Greek very well, and he told me that every year he goes to Manolada and if he can, he brings the same workers to the boss, because he knows them, and works well with them, etc.

In other words, he acts as a facilitator. But I am not sure that in Manolada he’s considered a “bad” mastur, while in Karditsa he’s “good”. In any case, the issue needs a lot more research. In other words, now that I’ve met him in Karditsa, I have to go to Manolada and see how he operates there as well.

The mastur in Manolada don’t leave the area. Of the 10,000 Bangladeshis living permanently in the area, there are 700 mediators. Because there is agricultural work in the region, and when production falls, people there cultivate other things besides strawberries. I assume the idea of the “bad” mastur probably refers only to Manolada, but this needs further study.

In the past, we had met a mastur during a visit to Manolada who told us that he had not left the area for four and a half years. Not even to go to Athens. And he had also said that too – that when strawberry season is over, the workers leave but the mastur remain, as they have other things to do. They have other connections to producers in the region.

The first time I went, I didn’t know that the man I was talking to was a mastur, and he invited me to his wedding, he was marrying the boss’s daughter. I asked him how it happened. Okay, he tells me, when the boss realized that I was seeing his daughter, he beat me up, but then he couldn’t find another mastur, so we reconciled, and I stayed on as mastur and I could marry his daughter.

But he was a completely different picture of man. Relaxed, well-dressed, chubby. Only one such Bangladeshi existed in the village and we found him. He paid for our cheese pies and coffees.

How much is the daily wage in Karditsa?

For eight hours of work, the daily wage is about €25. While in Manolada for seven hours it’s €23. So, we would say that the pay in Manolada is better.

But there’s the following to consider: in Karditsa the mastur is paid per kilo, but he’s not only involved in the harvest – he’s also supervising, providing transportation – so he loses money. Depending on the specifics of the day, that can be anywhere from €15 to €35. Thus, the employer told us that he gives the mastur some extra money afterwards.

Why have we not seen any labor rights movements among the migrant populations who are employed as land workers in these regions? In Manolada the Bangladeshis may number up to 10,000, but they don’t have a common voice to communicate their demands. How is this explained? Perhaps the mediators play a role? In southern Italy, for example, African land workers had set up their own movement, had their own representative, whose articles appeared in the mainstream media.

Why? Do we observe trade unionism among Greek workers? Also, the African land workers in Italy speak French. With the workers here, who are from Bangladesh, things are a bit strange. There are so many reasons. Both anthropological and socio-anthropological, other issues that have to do with the problems within the Greek trade union movement.

First of all, they do have a union. They formed a union, which was undertaken as part of a project by the organization Generation 2.0. It ended up being a success, they had help from a paralegal, members were registered, but as is very often the case with these programs, the initiative ends when the funding and the planning end. In order to continue, a political decision is needed. To unionize, they have to hold elections, etc and there is no one to coordinate and accelerate the process.

Moreover, the culture isn’t there. They tolerate things and situations, if for example, if it were Polish or Albanian land workers, they wouldn’t have put up with these conditions. It’s a matter of tradition, of culture, and it’s also a matter of organization.

It’s even religion: their faith offers them much comfort and relief on a daily basis. A migrant worker, who hasn’t seen his six daughters for seven or eight years, told me that he doesn’t feel the need to return home if it doesn’t suit him. In other words, I don’t want to return as a failure. I sold my fields in my villages, my parents borrowed money to send me here, and I have to die working to send money back home.

While on the other hand, the Polish worker has his union here, he has his traditions, and Poland, a country nearby, is in the EU. There were many Albanians, they integrated quickly, their country borders Greece. But the Bangladeshi – where can he go?

This restriction to Greece, which is economic, geographical as well as moral and anthropological, has now deprived them of very important human needs. From sexual to entertainment to social needs.

The pandemic and its consequences

Let’s move on to the issue of the pandemic. How does this health crisis affect the already problematic conditions faced by migrant land workers? And how is the reality of the labor market for them shaped?

The new issue that we observed during the pandemic for land workers both in Manolada, but also in the entire country, is unemployment.

In terms of production, it was difficult to have exports and large orders, thus wages decreased, and jobs were reduced. For the first time we did not observe labor exploitation and overtime, but a lack of day labor.

Of course, the big problem for migrant land workers had to do with confinement. Because the Greek state, contrary to what was advised for the rest of the population, required land workers to be confined to their camps. Thus, there were very crowded conditions there and the number of people who got sick is unknown, as neither do they have access to primary health care, nor access to rapid or PCR tests.

They had no day labor, ran out of money, and were geographically trapped in these camps. So the bigger the camp, and the worse the living conditions, as in Manolada, the greater the risk of getting sick.

On the other hand, the land owners also had a problem, as they put pressure on the state to open the borders. We had absurd things happening: unions and cooperatives from Northern Greece that went to the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking them to put pressure on the Greek Deputy Minister of Civil Protection, Nikos Hardalias, to lift the restrictions on movement due to the pandemic. Northern Greece came very close to not being able to harvest very basic goods, which would have irreparably affected the agricultural economy.

Eventually something incredible happened. On May 1, 2020, a Legislative Act was issued, which abolished the afore-mentioned bureaucratic recruitment process until June 30, deploying, in reality both recruited workers and seasonal workers by decree of the Prefecture.

In other words, the whole system we were referring to previously, was frozen for two months, so that land workers, mainly from Albania, could come to Greece using a simple invitation and a statement from their employer that they needed them.

And what happened to Article 13A?

The same. The whole process of issuing a deportation order froze, and the local administrator replaced both the Prefecture and the employer, and the permits were issued very quickly until June 30, so as not to waste the growing season. No one could have imagined it would have happened like this.

This is why there was a slight decrease in the use of 13A during these months, because the recruitment process and seasonal work hiring became very easy for two months − because there was a great risk of agricultural production collapsing. We see that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This also showed the irony of the matter. These people, who are extremely necessary for the Greek economy and agricultural production, are not provided with proper care, neither for insurance nor for their registration, nor opportunities to work.

Care is taken for their employers to work. So this is where the pressure was and the Minister of Rural Development at the time, Makis Voridis, legislated its facilitation.

Under other circumstances, if the borders were not closed due to the pandemic, Albanian land workers could enter and exit the country whenever they wanted, correct?

Yes. The visa was abolished in 2010.

What’s the overall picture in Europe, how have other countries handled the issue of land workers and the pandemic? Where is Greece in comparison to other countries?

There’s Greece that, once again, as it always does, created last-minute solutions, bringing about this culture of a quick-fix approach. The state offers a temporary solution and says ‘we’ll see what we do next year’. However, there are countries which organized this movement of people in an exemplary way.

For example, in Germany, civil authorities along with agricultural producers went to Romania amid a pandemic, hired Romanian workers, gave them covid tests and put them up in hotels. They were put on ‘sterilized’ flights, and transported to special facilities in rural areas in Germany, they were given repeated tests and were placed in proper, covid-safe living and working conditions. In serious countries, such as Germany and Austria, they don’t mess around nor do they skimp when it comes to these issues.

A second example is what happened in the Scandinavian countries, where the living conditions of land workers are very harsh, but there’s a system for monitoring health and labor, as well as a system for monitoring undeclared work.

Obviously, we have not reached anywhere close to this desired level. Moreover, the scope of delinquency that is deliberately allowed to exist by the Greek state does not exist in other countries. Here everything is left to undocumented work, undeclared residency, to illegality, deportation. These things don’t exist elsewhere. There are, of course, traces of the same policies. In Italy, the employer has the upper hand, but there are regulatory mechanisms, interventions by the state and local government, and unions. They might not have all the solutions, but at least there is an analysis of the field.

Here, it’s just us − Iliana, Stavros, Apostolis or someone else who conducted an investigation, is having a discussion and sometimes we also inform the relevant authorities. This has happened to us as well: we were interviewing someone from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum and he stopped the interview and said “hold on for a moment, let me jot that down, because I wasn’t aware of that.”

To conclude, what are your predictions for the new year, especially with the ongoing pandemic and the extension of the lock down measures?

My assessment, if I have a good understanding of the epidemiological data, is that we will not come out of the various lock down measures before May.

And this is optimistic, being in our current status and step by step, reaching May. The bad thing is that in February-March, the third (deadly) wave will hit, as it happened last year. Either way, my assessment is that we are travelling in uncharted and stormy seas.

I think the situation in the labor market and labor relations next spring will be unprecedentedly bad. The harsh financial restrictions that we experienced in 2012 -2013, will seem like child’s play, like a sweet memory.

As far as a more positive scenario, I don’t know, with the way things are here, the quick-fix mentality which distinguishes us as a country, I don’t know if there’s even a plan to address the needs for the protection of land workers or the needs of employers in finding workers, or whether the continuation of the economy as a whole can be ensured.

Surely the state will turn to crackdowns in order to reduce the reactions that will intensify from now on. The most vulnerable will be irreparably affected. If we have workers who, since last spring, are already sending less money back to Bangladesh, and this continues and you add the difficulties of moving around the country, I think these poorest groups will be hit even harder. We will go into situations of extreme impoverishment and misery.

As far as housing, we already have issues in Manolada. If we add the nationwide financial issues to this, we might see phenomena of competition between Greek employees. I personally know some very good chefs who were working in the restaurant industry in Athens and in September, with the restrictions turning from green to red, they chose to go to Crete and pick olives for the season.

People who were working as chefs became agricultural workers. I won’t rule out that we may see Greeks and foreigners competing for jobs in the agricultural or other sectors, which didn’t exist before, or that there may be intra-migration struggles between various population groups.

We also have the advantage of Bulgarians and Romanians who are EU nationals and can move freely. Here’s a funny thing − Bulgarian and Romanian land workers are not subject to the recruitment process or seasonal work rules or Article 13A. Who can say whether there won’t be competition, and instead of the Romanians going to Germany they’ll come here? No one can rule anything out.

Bulgaria and Romania are countries that continue to bleed outwards. Right now, Romania is the world’s largest exporter of migrants. It doesn’t matter if they are absorbed to a great extent by the labor markets of the Netherlands, Austria and Germany. Who’s to say that this won’t change?

And in terms of overall planning, how do you see things?

Germany is the first country in the world in terms of organization, they leave nothing to chance. And even Germany, with a huge number of vacant ICUs, were caught by surprise by the coronavirus. When it comes to migration and migrant labor in the agricultural sector, we’re talking about uncharted waters. There are no foresights.

And I’m not saying that to lighten matters, of course, but when it’s difficult for countries who try to foresee and plan like Germany, you can imagine what applies to us, a country that’s not even trying to improve matters.

I make this contradiction to illustrate that if those who are trying to organize and help a situation aren’t succeeding, those who have left everything on autopilot will collapse.


The interview is published in the context of Solomon’s in-depth series of reports on “Migrant workers in Greece in the time of COVID-19 ″ and is supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office in Greece.

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