Is there Blood on your Strawberries?

The situation for the migrant workers of Manolada hit the international headlines last month in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  But behind that acute incident lies a murky world of slave labour and sex trafficking all overseen by a corrupt and mafia infiltrated establishment.

In 2010, the investigative journalist, Dina Daskalopoulou, decided to investigate the economic miracle that was happening in the Manolada area of Greece. In a time of crisis, it was hailed as a great success story of Greek innovation, hard work and international trade, but what she found was very different from the official story. In the following three years, things have got worse – much worse.

A small village of around 2,000 people was nearly doubled by the workers who come to pick the strawberries of the area, prouducing nearly 90% of domestic consumption as well as strawberries for export. Some of the migrants live in shacks on the edge of the village on land rented from the farmowners. With no electricity, running water they are tiny haphazard constructions. The “masters” as they are known to the workers, have a deal with the local police to issue fake certificates – for a price of course. These are the lucky ones – they have their own places to stay in and receive their wages.

The unlucky ones are hired and unpaid, shoved into a camp surrounded by barbed wire with open latrines at the edge which overflow directly into the local river, where a company shop provides for their needs with no oversight, while they live in hope of receiving the wages that they are owed. Usually they hope in vain. After a few months, the farm owners will call on immigration and denounce the illegal workers who will be taken to a detention camp, saving on labour costs.

Daskalopoulou found the workers fearful and unwilling to talk openly to her.  Once she was rumbled as a journalist, the camp workers were given instructions not to talk to her, word eventually got back that they were being threatened that “for 2,000 euros the “masters” would lay them to the ground“.

Last August, an Egyptian worker was dragged through the town by a car.  Two men clamped his head in car’s side window and then drove nearly two miles through the town.  Horrified onlookers called the police.  Local eyewitnesses stated that the man had gone to demand his unpaid wages, and the brutal assault was the result.  The police on the other hand claimed that it was retaliation for a previous assault by the victim.

When the Greek anti-racism organisation UARFT went to investigate working conditions in Manolada in the aftermath, it quickly transpired that the workers there were in fact victims of trafficking, meeting nine out of ten of the Amnesty International criteria.  The investigator faced serious harassment, with his car being followed, physical intimidation and anonymous phonecalls repeating the threat that Daskalopoulou had encountered – that 2,000 euros was enough to have a wo/man killed.

In April this year, the plight of the Manolada workers hit the international headlines, when 34 workers were injured when two foremen opened fire on a crowd of around 200 workers who had gathered to demand their back wages.  The immediate priority of Dendias, the Public Order Minister, was to order the arrest of the injured workers for illegal migration, and indeed four were arrested on leaving the hospital where they were being treated, before an international outcry eventually saw the Greek State announce that they would be given refugee status, whether they will make good on that announcement remains to be seen, however.  Two foremen and the farm owner were eventually arrested for attempted murder, but only after several days.

They hit us and said, ‘We will kill you.’ Three of them were shooting at us while the others beat us with sticks. The shooting went on for more than 20 minutes,

Manolada strawberry picker


Video showing the aftermath of the shooting (trigger warning)

An investigation by Amnesty International in the aftermath of the shooting found that the conditions described by Daskalopoulou had got worse.  They found approximately 5,000 migrant workers, nearly half from Bangladesh, living in sheds made out of plastic sheeting.  With each shed housing 20 workers, some in their early teens, with no access to sanitation and a hose their only water supply.   Fearing both the gangmasters and the immigration authorities they were trapped.  The workers have still not been paid, but without access to legal representation and a lack of documentation, they felt they had no option but to carry on working. 

The situation for women at Manolada is particularly horrifying.  A solidarity activist who struck up a conversation with one of the workers discovered that it there is not only labour trafficking that takes place there, but also sex trafficking.  The worker explained that there were houses “out in the field” where women were available for sex for €20.  Owned by Greeks they keep their hands clean by employing men from the Balklans to “manage security”.  The women are locked in the rooms and never leave the houses, which operate both day and night.    The women are owned by the Greeks, although they themselves do not make use of them, instead the locals frequent one of the 4-5 “legitimate” brothels in the town, where the women are reputed to be “prettier”.

When workers didn’t have the money to visit one of the houses, the activist was told, they raped the younger and weaker female co-workers primarily choosing other nationalities from themselves to rape.  The distinction made here is somewhat academic.  Both the women in the fields and the women in the houses are being raped.  The women of these houses see little of the money which the workers pay to rape them, which goes to in the main to their Greek owners.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a new tactic has come to light whereby farm owners hire workers in groups, led by a “a leader”, who negotiates the fee and is paid the wages for the group for distribution.   One such group of 16 was hired over a month ago, and agreed a fee of €350 (€217 net, once the “shack rent” is removed) for 45 days work.  Last week the payments were due, however were not paid.  In the aftermath of the demand for wages, two of the workers were stabbed, one in the back, the other in the thigh.  To scared to call an ambulance in case the immigration authorities appeared to take them to detention, they took them to the main road and flagged down a passing car asking the driver to take the severely wounded men to hospital.

The police informed a journalist who rang to inquire about the situation that this was a dispute between migrants, confiscating the workers wages from the men arrested for the stabbings and refusing to hand it over to the workers.  The Greek press have reported it as another example of migrant violence.  But this completely ignores the structural issues which allow both the farmers and the “leaders” of migrant worker groups to avoid paying the workers the pittance that has been agreed in exchange for their work.

The idea that all this could be going on without the knowledge of the authorities is simply laughable.  People in the area talk of a well structured criminal group hierachy, complete with henchmen enforcers and  underworld gunmen.  The price of a life there – €2,000 – is well known and is repeated as a threat.  Immigrants who talk to the mainstream press are targetted by the police and arrested under immigration offences.  The slums are known to be rife with informers, yet the houses where women are imprisoned and repeatedly raped to make profit for their Greek owners remain untouched and no investigation into the working or living conditions for the labourers there has been made by the Greek authorities.

With the spotlight drawn to their situation in the aftermath of the shooting, the workers have become braver with the confidence that the world is watching, organising a solidarity march through the village and establishing a union of migrant workers.  But between the mafia involvement and the corrupt authorities as well as the “leaders” and informers from their own community who would sell them out, they have an uphill struggle.


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