Greece's modern slavery: lessons from Manolada

A shooting in a small agricultural town in the Peloponese demonstrates the stark dangers of the anti-immigration rhetoric gaining ground in Greece.

On Tuesday 16 April, Commissioner Nils Muižnieks of the Council of Europe, made the following announcement: "The commissioner is seriously concerned by the increase in racist and other hate crimes in Greece, which primarily targets migrants and poses a serious threat to the rule of law and democracy", it said. "The Greek authorities [need] to be highly vigilant and use all available means to combat all forms of hate speech and hate crime and to end impunity for these crimes", including imposing "effective penalties or prohibition, if necessary" on political groups advocating hate crimes, "including parties such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn".

The Greek government, responding with its usual reality-denial, issued an announcement, that could be summed up with in this phrase:

Racist attitudes remain a marginal phenomenon in Greek society ... Its culture of hospitality and openness remains strong and vivid.

Unfortunately for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his minister of citizen protection Nikos Dendias, reality insists on being all around us, and what transpired in a small agrictultural town in the Peloponese only two days later stands testament to that. The following account was given, according to the Greek anti-racism organisation UARFT, by Liedou, a Bangladeshi worker at the strawberry plantations of Manolada in the Peloponnese. There, three modern cotton-plantation-style enforcers, fired upon 200 immigrant workers with shotguns and a pistol, when they demanded six months of unpaid wages. Liedou told UARFT:

We were told we would be paid at one o’clock. Then they told us we should come by later, at five and then finally they told us to go as another group would work and not us. Then three guys [Liedou has named the perpetrators] started shooting straight at us, injuring about 20. 

The shocking video of the aftermath leaves no doubt as to what transpired.

The three foremen fled the scene but were arrested this morning, while the owner of the farm and a fifth person that provided them with shelter for a night were arrested yesterday.

Manolada has been in the center of such controversies before. In 2008, two journalists from the daily newspaper Eleftherotypia broke the story when they visited the area to investigate a strike the workers had staged over inhumane working conditions. Dina Daskalopoulou, who investigated along with Makis Nodaros, told the New Statesman:

I went there initially to investigate allegations of inhumane working conditions. When I visited the strawberry fields, and started talking to the immigrant workers about how much they worked, how much money were they getting etc. I realised these people were in fact victims of trafficking. Asking them the standard questions Amnesty International suggests, they fulfilled nine out of ten criteria that classified them as victims of trafficking.

When the owners picked up on our presence and what we were doing, they ganged up around us, started pushing us and yelling at us. I didn’t go in prepared for that, and we paid for it as immediately after I started receiving menacing phone calls, my car was followed and my colleague was threatened as well. I had to go to a nearby town and meet my contacts there in order to investigate. When the report was published, there was much controversy. I was called “an enemy of the Greeks”, an “anti-Christian” and much more.

The police, despite having full knowledge of the incidents there on, did nothing. No district attorney took action,  nothing, even when I was getting anonymous calls telling me “2000 euros are enough to have you killed around here".

Daskalopoulou explained that the plantation owners later paid local newspapers to run articles against them, in order to defame them. They can afford that, as their strawberries are a valuable and exportable good, with 70 per cent of it leaving the country for markets abroad. Efforts to boycott these operations are already in place, under the name Blood Strawberries (#bloodstrawberries on Twitter).

“Ancient and modern Greece have much in common. Like slaves for instance”, a humorous tweet went a few hours after the incident hit the news. But there is nothing funny about this story. What we are witnessing in Greece is the annihilation of workers and human rights, all finding justification in the hate speech the Golden Dawn and senior members of the government, like the aforementioned Samaras and Dendias, unleash on a regular basis and the promise of ever-elusive "growth".

Dendias, whose ministry has failed to tackle the problem despite knowing full well what is going on after the public beating of an Egyptian immigrant in the middle of the town, released the following statement: "We can’t tolerate hundreds, or even maybe thousands of people, being taken advantage of financially in our democracy, or allow for them to live under inhumane conditions. Even more so, they’re attempted murder."

But we all know his promises are empty, and frankly, they come too late. The farmers of Manolada, praised many a times for their entrepreneurial spirit from government and media alike, have enjoyed this impunity for years. Nodaros’ report speaks of shacks in which the workers are forced to live and pay rent for to their bosses, illegal supermarkets among them selling expired products at two and three times their price, and a shocking tolerance from the authorities who have done nothing to stop this despite the 150 plus cases on file against them. Does it make much difference that the ministry promised that none of the immigrants, most of them without green cards, wouldn't be deported? The mechanism that allows for this exploitation will simply replace them with other hands, in some other farm, maybe somewhere else in Greece. Even if they get legal papers, they will still face the danger of being beaten in the streets, knowing full well the Greek police won't do anything for them.

Political parties have condemned the attack in its aftermath. Even the Golden Dawn, albeit with a twist: they spoke against the owners who hired immigrants instead of Greeks. Not mentioning of course that those “illegal immigrants”, those “invaders” as they often call them, were paid five euros per day for their work (when they were actually paid) to be exploited, tortured and shot at. Some might say that the Golden Dawn has nothing to do with the incident, and they might be right. Not directly. But as the party fans the flames of hate, casting immigrants as second-rate humans, and the Greek state tolerates it, we will see Manoladas everywhere. We'll get to see their vision of Greeks and immigrants being paid scraps for hard manual labour come true. And soon, not just immigrants being shot at.

 

A migrant worker at Manolada's strawberry fields, photographed in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times