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GREECE: Migrant Workers in Historic Strike

Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, May 8 2008 (IPS) - It was a day when migrant workers said they had had enough.

Employed in the strawberry fields of Nea Manolada, a village of 2,000 situated 270 km southwest of Athens, they went on strike Apr. 18 demanding better payment and living conditions.

Their strike action, the most organised ever put up in Greece by economic migrants, was fired by an article by investigative journalist Dina Daskalopoulou in the daily Eleftheotipia.

Daskalopoulou described the dire conditions of migrants in improvised camps set up by strawberry producers around Nea Manolada in the prefecture Ilia in Pellopenesus.

The workers lack hygiene and health provisions, and work ten to 15 hours a day, the article pointed out. Until the day of the strike they received a daily wage of 22 euros, eight less than the minimum wage for the first seven hours, with 3.50 euros for every extra hour.

From these wages the workers pay rent and protection money to the local mafia. Until recently they were expected also to buy their food and other commodities from specified shops, and so indirectly return a big portion of their income back to local people.

The workers are mostly from Bulgaria, Romania, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Albania. Employers often withhold their papers from them.

The migrant workers organised their protest with the support of local members of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) union Pan-Hellenic Front of Workers (PAME). The party workers joined migrant workers on the second day of their strike action Apr. 19.

Few guessed what was to follow. Local people brutally attacked the union workers, injuring three, one of them seriously. “We were talking with the migrant workers when 60-70 people, most of them producers, together with Albanian bodyguards, attacked us,” said Christos Giannaros from the municipal representation committee of KKE in Ilia, who was among the injured.

“They hit us with such force that it is a miracle we escaped, and this just because the migrants intervened and saved us. The police were present, and did nothing to protect us.”

Following that incident, producers invaded workers camps, hitting many and firing into the air. They asked workers to end their strike and return to the fields.

The day after, Apr. 20, PAME members were attacked again when they attempted to protest in Nea Manolada about the earlier incident. Again, nobody was arrested.

“What happened takes us straight back to the 19th century, with feudal lords dictating their own law of the land while women run with their babies in the fields,” Giorgos Iliopoulos, president of the builders union in the region told IPS.

“First it was the Roma who worked the fields, until irregular migrants replaced them. For 15 years local authorities knew about the situation but did nothing. This is proof of their compliance in keeping economic migrants marginal and easily exploitable.”

Local producers had earlier refused to grant wage increases, saying they could not afford to pay more. Iliopoulos says this is not true, since every worker gathers 35 to 40 boxes of strawberries in a single shift, and the producer sells each box for 15 euros.

Following the incident municipal officials visited the village and made some nominal recommendations to improve the workers’ conditions. Workers went back with a daily compensation of 28 euros.

“This is a first small victory,” Iliopoulos said. “Not only does it make it possible for the migrants to go back to work with their heads high, but it has helped them understand that only if we stick together can we struggle for our rights, in their case for things many of us consider given – electricity, clean water, housing and a dignified wage.”

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