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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.