Pandemic Borders

The bitter taste of Greek strawberries

In Greece, COVID-19 has increased the exploitation of the migrant workers who ensure our food supply.

Reena Kukreja
2 September 2020
Bangladeshi migrant workers picking strawberries near Manolada
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Picture by Reena Kukreja. All rights reserved
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"Neither the Greek state nor the afentiko (boss) care about our lives or health. Only our cheap labour matters," says Ahmed*, an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant strawberry picker.

In Greece, the strawberry growing season, over for this year, has left a bad taste in the mouths of the over 8,000 undocumented Bangladeshi migrant men who are the bedrock of this sector.

In early March 2020, Greece was one of the first European countries to announce a stringent country-wide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown, coming right in the middle of harvest season, hit the Greek commercial strawberry sector and its daily-wage pickers hard as the movement of harvested fruit ground to a total halt for 10 days. When production did resume again, it was on a smaller scale due to diminished local and international demand.

With another strawberry growing season set to begin in late October, reflecting on the experience of undocumented strawberry workers is crucial.

Over 90 percent of Greece’s strawberry agribusiness is clustered in a small region commonly known as Manolada, located around the villages of Nea Manolada and Lappa in western Peloponnese. Almost all seasonal labour here is provided by 10,000–12,000 undocumented Bangladeshi men.

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Bangladeshi migrant workers picking strawberries near Manolada | Picture by Reena Kukreja. All rights reserved

The exploitation of this unfree migrant labour has made Greece the 8th biggest exporter of strawberries in the world. It has also enabled farmers to undertake a scale increase, expand agricultural activity by leasing underutilised farmlands, modernise farming, and market over 85 percent of their produce to wider markets such as Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Middle-East.

Strawberry workers are paid a daily wage of €23–25 for a workday lasting 10–12 hours. In 2013, protests by Bangladeshi workers against delayed wages led to Greek farmers shooting at them, earning the sobriquet of blood strawberries for Manolada strawberries. The workers won a landmark Human Rights case with the Greek state being forced to pay a total of 588,000 to 42 of them.

In March 2020, public announcements about COVID-19 restrictions through the distribution of informational leaflets in the Bangla language were given by local civic authorities in consultation with the Bangladeshi Consulate in Greece, and documented by Greek NGO Generation 2.0 for Rights, Equality & Diversity, or G2RED. Since 2017, G2RED’s “Manolada Watch” monitors migrant working and living conditions and advocates for their rights.

There is no provision for potable water, electricity, garbage disposal, or sanitation facilities

COVID-19 restrictions included social distancing in strawberry rows, the use of gloves and a mask at work, and limiting workers to their shanties – all guidelines that the workers were willing to comply with. “Without ‘papers’ (regularised status), we have no healthcare... If any one of us had contracted ‘corona’, all Bangladeshi workers here would have been stigmatised and removed from work,” shared 22-year-old Mohammad.

The workers created informal community support mechanisms and restrictions. “We relied on herbal remedies such as nimbu-ada cha (lemon-ginger tea). If someone had a fever, we’d check on them and bring painkillers from the pharmacy,” stated Forid, who had obtained temporary regularised status after a 2018 fire razed his shanty. Matiur, a regularised Bangladeshi supervisor said, “we requested our men go to the farm and return straight to their baranga (Bangla colloquial term for the Greek faranga, or tent) after work. Those who were not hired for the day had to stay inside. After all, if any one of us had contracted COVID-19, it would have spread like fire through the barangas.”

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Barangas: plastic tent cities for migrant workers near Manolada | Picture by Reena Kukreja. All rights reserved

This fear was not misplaced as the barangas epitomize inhuman living conditions. The workers are forced to rent unused farmland and build makeshift plastic shanties out of salvaged cardboard, plastic sheets, and reeds. Each cluster of 12–15 barangas easily houses 200-odd workers. There is no provision for potable water, electricity, garbage disposal, or sanitation facilities. Makeshift outdoor latrines and bathing areas are breeding grounds for infectious diseases.

As work resumed, a few farmers initially dispensed disposable masks and gloves only to small groups of workers. Twenty-year-old Anwar stated, “the aftentiko told us, ‘get your own masks.’ At that time, masks were €1.50 each in the market. Till the time we were able to purchase reusable cloth masks, we had no other option but to spend this money every two days.”

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Inside a Baranga near Manolada | Picture by Reena Kukreja. All rights reserved

The restrictions on social distancing also resulted in reduced demand for workers despite farming resuming to normal levels. One worker stated, “If I told the afentiko that I would not come for work because of corona, his reply would be, ‘okay, no problem. I will get someone else.’” “There was constant tension – tension about contracting the disease, tension about getting some work during the season, tension about rent and food,” said another. With a reserve army of migrant labour at the farmers’ disposal, the men feared being replaced by other more desperate migrants, creating friction between the men as they jostled for a smaller pool of jobs.

“There was constant tension – tension about contracting the disease, tension about getting some work during the season, tension about rent and food,”

In Greece, agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of its exports with around 90 percent of its agricultural workers being migrants. During the COVID-19 lockdown, lobbying by farmer cooperatives resulted in a slew of relief measures, including a fast-track procedure (in place until 30 June) allowing farmers to hire “third country citizens in an irregular situation” who were already present in the country.

Greece also waived visa requirements for seasonal agricultural workers coming from neighbouring Albania and arranged charter flights to ferry them. In early April 2020, the European Commission approved €1 billion in Greek State aid directed at its agricultural sector. In June 2020, the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food announced further financial assistance of up to €7,000 for each farmer and €50,000 for small and medium agricultural enterprises.

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Open drains and garbage near the barangas | Picture by Reena Kukreja. All rights reserved

Till today, no state relief measures for migrant farmworkers has been forthcoming. According to Elias Ahmed, president of the Workers Union of Bangladeshi Immigrants in Greece, “the Greek state, with the interest of agribusiness and capital at heart, is enabling the exploitation of precarious migrant workers. It knows that if they remain undocumented, their labour can be easily exploited. If they get ‘papers’ (temporary permits or regularised status under an amnesty), then the state is obliged to be responsible to the workers who will demand fair wages. They don’t have the intention to help migrant workers.”

"The Greek state, with the interest of agribusiness and capital at heart, is enabling the exploitation of precarious migrant workers"

Ismini Karydopoulou, program officer at G2RED, argues that “first important step (for the Greek state) is to design and implement a proper legal framework that will give access to a legal residence status that will recognize this community. As long as land workers are not legally recognized, any attempt to protect their rights cannot be effective and complete.” The current centre-right government led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been critiqued for its anti-migrant stance. Greece’s resistance against regularizing undocumented migrants is situated within a larger initiative to avoid more shocks to its fragile agricultural economy, the recovery and profitability of which rests on demand-based flexible migrant labour.

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Makeshift outdoor washing platform next to the barangas | Picture by Reena Kukreja. All rights reserved

Anxieties around holding on to precarious jobs will increase vulnerability to workplace exploitation and abuse. Already, workers prefer acquiescence rather than speaking out due to threats about deportation, unsurprising given that under the controversial European Union–Turkey deportation deal, an overwhelming number of deportees have been Pakistani and Bangladeshi men.

Greece needs to introspect about adopting pro-migrant worker policies and measures. Called absolutely irreplaceable by farmers and “essential workers,” by the state, migrant workers, who form the backbone of this agribusiness, feel they are “like flies swatted away when our use value is over.” They worry about contracting COVID-19, dying in pardes (a foreign land), and leaving their families financially more precarious than ever before. Such migrant agricultural workers whose work ensures that we do not have to worry about food shortages, while they constantly juggle worries about just wages and better work and housing conditions as they plant and harvest crops, deserve better.

*All names have been changed

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