Edited by Iliana Papangeli
Translated by Gigi Papoulias
Read by Jackie Abhulimen
At around 10pm; this is when Rahmad will know if he is working tomorrow or not.
That’s the time when the “mastur”, his fellow compatriot who acts as a mediator for Rahmad and dozens others of Bangladeshis under his supervision, will have talked with the “afentiko”, the Greek producer, and will know how many people will be needed in the strawberry fields the next morning.
Day labour in Manolada has been declining recently. Fewer days are available, with reduced working hours.
Rahmad, who came to Greece two years ago and has been working in the strawberry fields of western Ilia ever since, has lately worked sometimes three, sometimes four hours. Some days he has not worked at all.
“Things here lately are very bad,” he told Solomon on Wednesday, April 1. He had just returned from the field after four hours of work, for which he is to receive €14 (€3.5 per hour).
That same night, before going to bed, Rahmad received a text message. The boss did have a job for him tomorrow. How many hours? “Come tomorrow and we’ll see.”
Where overcrowding cannot be avoided
As part of its efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Greece, on March 18, 2020, during the daily press briefing by Health Ministry spokesman Sotiris Tsiodras and Deputy Minister of Civil Protection Nikos Hardalias, Greek government announced a ban on public, outdoor gatherings of 10 or more people. The measure went into effect the very next day.
Hardalias added that, at the same time, gatherings of 10 or more people for recreational purposes are now also discouraged. Three days later, on March 21, 2020, the Greek Police released a video in which it called on Greek citizens, as well as non-Greeks who live or are in the country, to avoid overcrowding.
The video, as well as the message broadcast by loudspeakers across the country that day, was communicated in ten languages: Greek, English, French, Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Farsi, Hindi, Punjabi and Pashto.
In one part of Greece the message was also given in one more language.
In the villages of Manolada, Nea Manolada, Lappa, Varda, and Neo Vouprasio, that is, in the wider area of the prefecture of Ilia, which is usually referred to as “Manolada,” municipal vehicles also broadcast the message in Bengali.
It is the language spoken by Bangladeshi agricultural workers living in the area, having replaced workers from the Balkans in previous decades. The Bangladeshis are mainly employed in the cultivation of strawberries, as in Manolada it accounts for more than 90% of all domestic production, but also in the harvesting of other agricultural products, such as potatoes and onions.
The strawberry season began in March, as did the COVID-19 pandemic and thus, there are now at least 7,000 to 10,000 agricultural workers living and working in the Manolada area.
Manolada Watch (a Generation 2.0 initiative to monitor the working conditions and livelihoods of migrant workers in the area), has been monitoring the efforts to keep workers updated on the situation. Despite the efforts being made, the measures restricting groups of ten or more from gathering outdoors or gathering for recreational purposes, are measures that are, in practice, impossible for the workers to follow.
This is because, at every stage of their daily lives, overcrowding is practically inevitable: from the moment they wake up, as they go to work and during working hours, to the free time they have in the afternoon, until nightfall when they go to sleep.
Walking for many kilometers…
On work days, Rahmad wakes up at 6am in his “paraga”.
The “paraga” (“shack” in the Manolada jargon) is surrounded by hundreds of other shacks, which are constructed with reeds and sheets of plastic to cover the dwellings. This is where the Bangladeshi workers live. Rahmad shares his shack with nine other people.
He gets ready to leave as work begins at 7am. Large producers, that employ many land workers, use closed trucks to transport them to the strawberry fields. Essentially, they are being transported in trucks that are normally used to transport livestock.
Following the March 19 announcement regarding the ban however, most such transports have stopped. People with many years of experience in the field, told Solomon that they attribute this change to the new measures, as employers do not want to risk paying fines for crowding so many people into the trucks.
So for the moment most workers have to walk to and from the fields, which are often located many kilometers away from their shacks.
….is what the “invisible” workers must do
In addition, the new restriction of movement measure requires employees to fill out verification forms from their employers and keep them in their possession whenever they leave home.
In some cases, which differ depending on the village where the fields are located, some employers have indeed provided the relevant verification documents for their field workers.
And while it seems employers are complying with the new measures imposed due to the COVID-19 crisis, a peculiar circumstance has been created as well.
This is because the vast majority of the Manolada workers, who have been working in the fields for at least a decade are, “invisible” to the Greek state.
Indicatively, last year, when at the peak of the season it is estimated that at least 8,500 migrant workers were found in the wider area, the number of foreigners legally employed in Ilia (properly documented), was just about 500.
These workers, who are essentially considered irregular residents in Greece, acquire “visibility” for the first time by way of these newly required verification forms from their employer. In fact, regarding the verification forms that agricultural producers should give to their field workers, the Deputy Minister of Civil Protection Nikos Hardalias stated the following:
“Agricultural producers have to give the verification document, and I want you to pay close attention to this detail: they must give it to all their employees, locals or foreigners. The inspections will be based only on the verification document.”
“To show that the state is present in Manolada”
This, in practice, means that at this stage the checks by the Labor Inspectors for compliance with labor legislation in the agricultural sector, have been suspended.
Vassilis Kerasiotis is a lawyer and represented agricultural workers in the much-publicized 2013 case in Manolada (“Chowdury and others against Greece”), where hundreds of Bangladeshi workers were shot for demanding their back pay, a case which reached the European Court of Human Rights, and led to a judgment against Greece. Kerasiotis notes that in the current condition of the pandemic it is reasonable that the protection of public health prevails, in relation to the application of the rules on legal residence or work.
“In other words, public interest dictates the registration of all employees in Manolada, regardless of the status quo of one’s residence status,” Kerasiotis told Solomon.
“Obviously, in a well-governed state it shouldn’t take a pandemic in order for this to happen, but even so it is necessary to implement this registration, due to the constitutional obligation to protect health,” he added.
“Although it is not a measure of compliance by the European Court of Human Rights’s decision in the Chowdury case and others vs Greece, (the progress of which will be judged in June by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe), it is important for the state to demonstrate that it is not, once again, absent in Manolada.”
Terrible living conditions for thousands of people
In a recent report, Manolada Watch noted that workers in the greater Manolada area had received information about the coronavirus.
This was done by the distribution of printed information given to them in their language, which was created by the municipality of Andravida-Kyllini in collaboration with the Embassy of Bangladesh.
However, although they have been informed about the individual protection and social distancing measures, these are simply impossible to implement in practice. Initially, the issue starts from the living conditions themselves: 10-20 people live in each shack, depending on its size.
It is worth noting that each worker pays monthly rent to the owner of the field where the shack is located, an amount ranging from €30 to €50.
Although the occupants of the shacks engage in physical labor on a daily basis, there is no running water in their dwellings. Workers use makeshift showers (they collect rainwater) and toilets and often, this time of year, they suffer from health issues due to the living conditions.
When it rains, it only takes a few minutes for the soil on which their shacks are built to become mud.
In addition, as noted by Solomon, not all employers have the necessary means of protection (masks, gloves) for their employees. To date, no COVID-19 cases have been reported by the thousands of workers in the area. More precisely, to date, no COVID-19 tests have been performed on any of the thousands of workers in the area.
One realizes, however, that with the overcrowded working and living conditions that the migrant workers deal with, in the event of a case of COVID-19, the virus could spread rapidly.
“I want to go back to my country”
The virus is estimated to have reduced strawberry production by 70% in Manolada. Producers cannot export and the mood in the Greek market has declined, leaving significant quantities unavailable or discarded.
Of course, Greece is not the only country experiencing the consequences of the pandemic. Europe’s largest agricultural economies, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, rely on foreign agricultural workers.
About 70,000-80,000 workers, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, travel to the United Kingdom each year to work. It is estimated that 98% of all agricultural workers in the UK are from these two countries.
About 300,000 seasonal workers travel to Germany each year, mainly from Eastern Europe, while in France, which requires about 800,000 farm workers to harvest, two-thirds come from Central and Eastern Europe, Tunisia and Morocco.
With the new conditions created by the pandemic, the above-mentioned countries are facing a shortage of workers, as the seasonal workers cannot travel due to the closed borders in Europe. China’s ban on domestic travel has also created similar problems.
In the United States the vast majority of seasonal workers are from Mexico and Central America and, after decades of living in the US, they remain undocumented and in fear of deportation. However, in the US, the risk of a shortage of fruit & vegetables is such that seasonal workers are now being supplied with documents from their employers certifying them as “crucial” to the country’s food supply.
Back in Manolada, the decreases in daily wages bring disappointment. In previous years, when the strawberry season was over, workers could move to other agricultural regions: Thebes, Arta, Skala.
Now, with the same situation prevailing in the agricultural sector across the country, their hands are tied. Rahmad feels that the €100 he had given to the middleman to find him a job, was a waste.
“Things are bad here,” he said again when he returned from the fields on Thursday, April 2. We asked him where the situation is worse: Manolada today or Bangladesh?
Rahmad replied, “I want to go back to my country.”