Two years after the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Greek government to pay damages up to 16,000 euros ($17,717) each to 42 Bangladeshis who had been working as strawberry pickers and were shot at by their employers for asking for their unpaid wages, there are signs life hasn’t gotten better for those from other countries toiling at that labor.
“This is one of the most important judgments an international court has ever given for migrant workers,” Simon Cox, the British lawyer who represented the claimants, told the Guardian then. “It is a trailblazer for Europe and not only brings justice for the workers in this case but will compel governments to protect migrants without papers against exploitation.”
From now on, he said, irregular workers would be safeguarded from employers using the threat of deportation for exploitation, but as for their living conditions, they can be downright dangerous, even living in inflammable shacks.
Each growing season, from October to May, as many as 12,000 undocumented Bangladeshi migrant men work in the fields of Greece, many picking strawberries, the sweet delicacy that finds its way to Greek supermarkets or open air markets known as laiki, the buyers unlikely aware of who picked them and how they are living.
“Although they consider Greece a transit stop to other European countries, most end up staying for years. The migrant farm workers say the farmers reap rich profits but are so far unwilling to provide decent housing for them. Nor can the seasonal workers find local accommodation,” Reena Kukreja, Asst. Prof. Global Development Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario, wrote for the site The Conversation.
She said the workers are forced to rent unused farmland and build highly inflammable makeshift shacks called barangas, a Bangladeshi colloquial term derived from a Greek word, paranga, which translates as “a shack.” Workers construct the barangas out of salvaged plastic sheets, cardboard and reeds. All easy to catch fire and where they have to live and sleep when not working.
Few know that Greece is the 10th biggest exporter of strawberries in the world but picking the fruit requires huge amounts of labor at cheap wages that many Greeks shun, even during a more than 9 ½ years economic and austerity crisis.
Strawberries go bad faster than bad bosses so the picking has to be done fast and furiously and it’s migrants willing to do it for next to nothing. Kukreja said she was shown around a farm at Nea Manolada as part of her research on Bangladeshi migrant men working on strawberry farms.
What she found was appalling, pointing to the fine homes of the bosses. “Look how they live in comfort – all due to our hard work. What do we get in return? Discarded plastic sheets as our roof,” said one worker in his 20s.
A group of 25 Bangladeshi farm workers in Nea Manolada released this statement: “Sweating our blood in the field, we earn huge profits for farmers who treat us worse than animals. We want people to learn how we live a rough life in barangas.”
The professor said labor force surveys reveal that more than 50 percent of agricultural workers in Greece are migrants but that factoring in undocumented migrants, that figure comes closer to 90 percent she said are exploited to do so-called 3D jobs: dirty, dangerous, and demeaning and work dirt cheap – in the dirt.
The majority of Nea Manolada’s 700-strong population is engaged in strawberry cultivation, either as independent producers or as sharecroppers. Almost 95 per cent of strawberries grown in Greece come from this region. Since the mid-1970s, this highly profitable cash crop has replaced the traditional potato crop, she added.
The conditions of work are really forced or unfree labor, she said, almost next to slave labor, with many workers going unpaid despite the 2017 court decision that found in the favor of workers.
Clusters of 10-17 barangas each house a minimum of 200-350 workers. With a rent of USD $33-38 per baranga, a farmer stands to earn USD $500-550 per month from just one baranga alone during the season, extrapolated to account for housing 12,000 workers for seven months means riches.
If workers complain, she added, they can be harassed by police close to the farm owners. The barangas have no running water, electricity, or sanitation facilities.
“These structures are human tragedies waiting to happen. The danger of the inflammable construction material is heightened with cooking done inside in crude partitioned kitchens, with propane gas cylinders, and lighting provided by candles. Because barangas are located on wastelands with no proper road access, firefighters have difficulty accessing them,” she added.
Indeed, in June 2018, a massive fire broke out in a migrant settlement in Nea Manolada and more than 340 Bangladeshi workers lost everything they had, including identification papers, passports, work permits, proof of stay and saved wages. This year, seven fires, fueled by strong winds, charred entire sets of barangas in the same region in a matter of minutes.
So far, no one has died. But the men worry about what might happen if a fire breaks out at night, when everyone is sleeping, she said, something no court has had to rule on. Yet.