The Boycott of Greece’s "Blood Strawberries"

Though this is a blog about Asia, I would like to report on something that happened in Greece on Wednesday 17th and that resulted in a call to boycott strawberries produced in the area of Nea Manolada, in Greece.

As the Greek newspaper To Vima reported, around 200 migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, who worked for a company that produces strawberries in the agricultural area of Nea Manolada, demanded from their boss the payment of six months’ outstanding wages.

But instead of paying them, their Greek supervisors, after a protracted quarrel, took their carbines and shot at the workers. 20 of them were wounded lightly, while 8 suffered major injuries.

The owner of the company was arrested, though he was not present when the shooting happened. According to another Greek newspaper, the Kathimerini, the people responsible for the violent action against the migrant workers were three supervisors, of 39, 27 and 21 years of age. They left the scene of the crime immediately. A 38-year-old man who allegedly provided shelter to two of them was arrested on Thursday (note).

One of the workers, who had been wounded during the shooting, stated:

At noon they told us […] to come back in the afternoon and we’d get our pay. There are 200 of us and they owe us the wages of the last six months, 150.000 euros in total. They didn’t give us the money, though. They said we should go back to work. We refused, and then they started to shoot at us. More than 30 people were injured! And it wasn’t the first time they didn’t pay us. Last year they gave me a cheque I couldn’t cash… I was never paid!” (note).

This is not an isolated case, although it is perhaps the one that has reached the widest international media coverage. In fact, the area of Nea Manolada is infamous for the abhorrent working conditions of migrant workers. Not only are their salaries lower than local people’s, but the workers are also forced to live in shacks which cost them half of their income. Some workers stated that they had come to Greece to earn money to support their families, but now they could not even make ends meet themselves (note).

On August 2012 Greek news outlets reported that a 22-year-old Egyptian man was tortured, his head being wedged between the door and the body of a car and dragged for a kilometre on the street. One of the men involved in the crime appears to have been the same 27-year-old man who is responsible for the shooting in Nea Manolada (note).

In April 2011 two journalists of the newspaper To Vima who were investigating the inhuman working conditions of migrants in the region were assaulted and wounded, their camera and memory card taken away (note). 

The situation for migrants in Greece has been worsening in the past few years. A rising number of racist episodes and the growth of right-wing nationalist movements such as the Golden Dawn have been reported in the media, both in Greece and in the rest of the world (for example read the following article).

The austerity measures that force Greece to repay its debt by cutting expenses have taken their toll on the economy and the standard of living of the population, without giving the country any prospect for the future. Caught in a vicious circle of despair and frustration, Greece’s state seems to be dissolving, unable to curb racist violence. 

In a recent article, the New York Times revealed the extent of the hardships the increasingly impoverished middle class has to endure. Interviewed by the paper, a school principal, Leonidas Nikas, stated: “We have reached a point where children in Greece are coming to school hungry. Today, families have difficulties not only of employment, but of survival” (note).

In the past five years, the Greek economy has shrunk by 20 percent, while its unemployment rate has skyrocketed, reaching 27 percent. 

A 2012 Unicef report showed that among the poorest Greek households with children, more than 26 percent had an “economically weak diet.” The phenomenon has hit immigrants hardest but is spreading quickly among Greeks in urban areas where one or both parents are effectively permanently unemployed (note).

Without a proper plan for the future of Greece, without an industrial plan to make the country more productive and more competitive, the strangling of the country by its creditors will continue. It is a shame, which nothing can justify, that children suffer from malnutrition while the government is forced by the EU and the IMF to transfer millions to banks, in a climate of general indifference and even hostility towards the Greek people. 

I have myself travelled to Greece many times, mostly before 2008. I have often criticized Greece for being too unproductive, and I had not a few arguments with Greeks who, in those days of plenty, were proud of the wealth their country had achieved. But it was obvious to me even before the crisis, that the staggering growth the Greek economy was experiencing, was not solid. Let us remember that back in the year 2007 German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a press conference with then Greek Prime Minister said that “Greece has outstanding growth rates we can only dream of, 4%” (note). The acumen of politicians and experts is sometimes astounding. 

Anyway, even if Greece was growing I thought the country lacked industries, had a bad education system, and few products to export. So I told my Greek friends about my opinion, and they disagreed.

Nowadays the atmosphere has completely changed, and people outside of Greece seem willing to punish the Greek for their past mistakes, without offering a viable alternative for their survival. And in this new situation, I defend the Greek and say that austerity is a folly, which is already leading to social unrest. The ocean may still be calm, but a storm is looming on the horizon. 

What Greece needs is an industrial plan, or any kind of plan to develop new economic dynamism. This, of course, runs against the sacred principles of free market. But many countries, including China and South Korea, but also in the past the US, Britain, Germany and Japan, did not get rich through free trade. It is evident that Greece cannot compete on the global markets. It is not ready for it. So something else, a new strategy, perhaps looking at the example of successful developing countries such as South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore, with a mix of market forces and state intervention, should be devised. Something has to happen.

If the economy shrinks and people lose their faith in the state, and in democracy, it will also be impossible for the government to provide enough resources, both material and moral, in order to prevent right-wing extremists or local business owners who exploit their workers from committing crimes. And we’ll be reading this kind of news over and over again.

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