Socialist Worker

Migrant workers in Greece speak out - we are not criminals. We are not beggars. We are workers

Strawberry pickers in Greece have defied armed bosses to join a union. They spoke to Dave Sewell

Issue No. 2352

Migrant workers on the march for justice last week. Hundreds are joining unions after bosses shot at workers demanding to be paid

Migrant workers on the march for justice last week. Hundreds are joining unions after bosses shot at workers demanding to be paid (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Sheds covered with plastic sheeting surround the farms around Manolada in western Greece. Twenty or more migrant workers have to live in each one.

This is the “housing” that their bosses provide—for a charge. It is where they sleep and prepare food. 

The plastic traps in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. There is no toilet and the only water comes out of a rubber hose.

The charge for this housing is taken out of their paltry wage of £18 a day. But often workers aren’t paid at all. And physical abuse is common.

“I’m in so much pain,” strawberry picker Morshed Chowdhury told Socialist Worker. He pointed to wounds on his leg, arm and chest, where he’d been shot at by bosses two weeks earlier. 

Pellets were still embedded in his flesh and he could no longer move his right arm properly.

“There was so much blood over my body,” he said. “I would need to get legal papers for treatment, so I had to get money from my family in Bangladesh to see a doctor. Now I need medicine, for the injuries and the pain.”

Morshed was one of 33 workers injured at the Vagilatos strawberry farm near Manolada when supervisors opened fire on a crowd of 200 last month. Bosses had refused to hand over wages—just as they had every payday for the six months that Morshed worked there.

“They’d say we’ll pay you next week, always next week,” he remembers. But this time workers had had enough.

“Workers were going up one by one to ask for their money,” said Alomghir, another Bangladeshi worker who saw the shooting. “Each one was told no. Workers got angry. And the supervisors got out their guns.”

It’s hard for migrant workers without legal documents to seek help as they would have to face Greece’s harshly anti-immigrant authorities.

“If I had papers I could go to the police if I had problem,” said Umair Ali. “But the way things are in Greece I am the one who is illegal.”

The workers are the heart of a new economy in western Greece. European Union agricultural policies encouraged small farmers to sell to industrial superfarms. These are now among Greece’s biggest rural workplaces.

Control

Workers are also at the sharp end of the Greek establishment’s struggle to keep control. Squeezed between European creditors demanding more cuts and a workers’ movement—determined to fight back, the coalition government has lashed out. Migrants make convenient scapegoats.

“Whenever there’s a crime the police look for an immigrant,” one Bulgarian café owner told Socialist Worker. They are in here every night—and not because there’s anything illegal going on. It’s because immigrants come here and they want to intimidate us.”

The economic crisis has generated bitterness towards the Greek establishment. This has helped the Greek left to grow—including the Coalition of the Radical Left, Syriza, last year. 

But it has also fed the right.

The fascist Golden Dawn party has campaigned against corruption in the Tory-style New Democracy party. And the Independent Greeks—a hard nationalist split from New Democracy—is cooperating with Golden Dawn.

French fascist leader Marine Le Pen identifies the Independent Greeks as her Greek equivalent.

New Democracy responded with draft laws to meet some of Golden Dawn’s demands. The centre left Pasok party has also been part of a series of austerity governments, and has shamelessly pandered to racism. 

The main anti-austerity left ­parties don’t want to pick a fight over the treatment of migrants.

Syriza doesn’t want anything to get in the way of its project to capture anti-austerity votes. It has even forged a “common front” against austerity with the Independent Greeks.

But there is also a growing movement to defend migrants. The Keerfa anti-racist coalition, which includes the revolutionary left, has led demonstrations against Golden Dawn. 

Keerfa activists went to Manolada the day after the shootings and addressed a workers’ meeting. Workers voted unanimously to call a demonstration.

Around 2,000 people marched through the countryside where for so long they’d had to live in fear. They are now setting up a union.

“Everybody is scared after what happened,” Sultan Sukdir told Socialist Worker. “There were so many people bleeding, you can’t imagine. And now everybody wants to join the union. Not just ones and twos but hundreds.”

If the Manolada workers win it will set a new precedent for migrant workers defying the Greek government’s vicious clampdown.

“We’re not criminals, we’re not beggars, we’re workers,” continued Sultan. “We want our salary and our papers. And in a union we are all stronger.”


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