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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The Asian Financial Crisis 20 years on

In the four years between 1993 and 1996 the tiger economies of Asia led the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth and stock market returns as foreign and local investors piled in and embraced the opportunity.

In the four years between 1993 and 1996 the tiger economies of Asia led the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth and stock market returns as foreign and local investors piled in and embraced the opportunity. But trouble was brewing and Thailand was the canary in the coal mine. Strong growth was being funded by ever increasing levels of debt and with offshore interest rates far more attractive than those available at home, US dollars became the funding currency of choice.

While currencies remained pegged to the US dollar risks were minimal but as a growing trade and current account deficit and rising inflation led to increasing overvaluation of the Thai Baht, speculation grew and short-term money started to move out of the Thai currency.

In July 1997, after a futile attempt to stem the outflow, the Thai central bank removed the peg triggering an immediate 25% fall in the currency - by the end of the year it had lost half of its value. The impact on the economy was devastating. Interest rates initially spiked making dollar debt significantly more expensive. Loans started defaulting, peaking at almost 50% of total loans in 1999. The figures reflect the severity of the downturn: GDP took five years to return to pre-crisis levels, consumption – the use of good and services by households - was four years, and private sector loan growth only returned to positive territory in 2002.

Although Thailand was the trigger, the ticking time bomb of unhedged foreign currency debt and a  prolonged period of over-exuberance prevailed across all of South East Asia.  The Philippines and Malaysia were also significantly impacted but the most significant downturn occurred in Indonesia, which, although running a current account deficit only half the size of Thailand, saw its currency go from 2000 rupiah to the US dollar to 16000, and bank loan books fill up with defaulting loans.

Contagion and a severe lack of confidence dented the whole region and although Hong Kong managed to hold on to its peg to the US dollar, a prolonged period of high interest rates and slower growth resulted in a 40% fall in residential property prices and a deflationary period that took many years to recover from. Even South Korea, which was the 11th largest global economy at the time, had to call in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as interest rates ballooned and the currency weakened.

The recovery, which on average took more than 5 years, was supervised by stringent IMF requirements and has put Asian economies on a much firmer footing. With a few exceptions Asian currencies are free floating, meaning their value is determined by the foreign exchange (forex) markets through supply and demand, and as a result they have much more flexibility to reflect domestic economic cycles ensuring that pressures don’t build. Current and trade accounts, with the exception of India and Indonesia, are now in surplus, with the practice of unhedged foreign borrowing all but ended. Short term foreign debt in ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) nations has dramatically dropped from 160% to now less than 30%.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008 was borne out of exuberance in the West but not in the East and although Asian economies were impacted by the slowdown in global growth, Asian economic credibility was never called into question.

The only economy that is showing a worrying trend is China. A credit boom following the GFC has seen debt-to-GDP balloon from 160% in 2008 to 260% in 2017. The nature of this debt however is different from that accrued by South East Asian Countries in the late 1990’s. Firstly, most of the debt lies with state owned enterprises (SOEs) and is hence backed by the >$3tn worth of foreign exchange reserves, and most of it is denominated in renminbi. Secondly, although China operates a managed exchange rate regime against a basket of trading currencies, the capital account is closed which restricts the amount of speculative flows. Finally, a lot of the debt is owned by domestic institutions and is long term in nature which reduces the likelihood of enforced withdrawal leading to a liquidity crisis.

The impact of the Asian crisis lives long in the memory of Asian corporates. The days of rapid expansion and growth for the sake of growth have gone and been replaced by conservatism and a focus on cash flow and profitability. Corporate debt levels are at all-time lows while cashflow compares favourably to any other region of the world. Interestingly it is developed economies that are now showing the stresses Asia encountered and recovered from 20 years ago; Asia in comparison looks favourable.

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