Undocumented migrant workers that provide the bulk of seasonal labor in Greece’s strawberry farms have reported suffering increased exploitation this year.
More than 10,000 undocumented Bangladeshi men work seasonally in Greece’s strawberry industry, the eighth-largest in the world.
The exploitative conditions and wages on these farms have long been recognized, with violently repressed protest against delayed wages in 2013 leading some to call the fruits “blood strawberries.”
But this year, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns has exacerbated the situation drastically, stalling production and slashing demand.
In addition to lower wages, the migrants’ legal status means they are unable to access healthcare, despite the increased risk of infection they face as a result of the “inhuman” conditions of the barangas (shanty towns) they are forced to live in.
Health and social distancing restrictions on the farms, meanwhile, were enforced enough to cause tension between migrants vying for work, but not enough to ensure free masks and gloves for all.
As Greece looks ahead to the next strawberry season, which begins in late October, it is more crucial than ever to recognize and assess the exploitation faced by migrant workers in the spring and summer.
“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.
“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.
While Greece’s government has introduced some measures to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on farming, such as financial assistance to farmers, there have been no moves to regularize or protect the Bangladeshi migrant workers that sustain its strawberry industry.
Some labor rights campaigners argue this is intentional so as to tacitly allow their exploitation while continuing to preclude them from accessing state benefits, including healthcare.
The exploitation of migrant farmworkers, made worse by the pandemic and its repercussions, is a problem Greece shares with other Mediterranean countries.
Strawberry farms were also at the center of a humanitarian crisis in Spain earlier this summer, where thousands of Moroccan seasonal migrant workers with expired visas—unable to work, yet unable to return home—were trapped in desperate conditions.
Italy, meanwhile, introduced a six-month amnesty for migrant workers in May to minimize the economic impact on agriculture, but critics argue it has been ineffective and did little to curb the exploitation and violence migrant workers face.
Freedom United is calling on governments to follow UN guidance and ensure that all migrants—regardless of immigration status—are protected for the duration of the pandemic.
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