As unemployment rises, Greeks still won’t take up menial jobs

Until a few days ago, the fields around the village of Nea Manolada in the Peloponnese were a hive of activity as thousands of immigrant workers picked the strawberries that southern Greece exports across Europe. Now those fields are quiet.

On April 17, three Greek foremen at one of the strawberry farms fired shotguns at a large group of mostly Bangladeshi strawberry pickers who were demanding several months of back pay. More than 30 migrants were injured, and the supervisors, along with their boss, were arrested. As a result of the highly publicised incident, many foreign companies that import Nea Manolada strawberries have cancelled orders, and migrant workers are staying away for fear of being caught without residence permits.

It’s unlikely that unemployed Greeks will seek to replace them in the fields. Although the country has endured a deep recession since 2008 and the most recent data puts January unemployment at 27.2 per cent, Greek citizens regard this type of menial, low-paying work as beneath them. “These are not the type of jobs that we do,” says Platon Tinios, an assistant professor at the University of Piraeus who specializes in labour economics. “We abandoned this type of work a long time ago.”

There are just over 500,000 immigrants living in Greece legally, but it’s estimated that there are at least as many undocumented migrants. While illegal immigration has been a concern for years, it’s become a hot-button issue now that there are 1.3 million Greeks out of work. Still, despite claims by some politicians – notably those from the far-right – that migrants are stealing jobs, locals are wary of farm work and other labour-intensive jobs. The strawberry pickers, for example, are paid between €20 and €25 a day ($26 to $33) for around 10 hours work. They live mostly in makeshift huts cobbled together from plastic sheeting and pieces of wood, and have no access to toilets.

Lia Liapa has been searching for a job since January, when the home-appliance retailer in Athens where she’d worked for more than three years closed without warning. Even though the 33-year-old is eligible for unemployment benefits of a mere €359 a month, Liapa would not consider working on a strawberry farm. “I would take almost any job, even part-time,” she says. “But not one where I would be exploited, like the migrant workers. Greeks wouldn’t or couldn’t work in these conditions.”

About half of the country’s 10.8 million citizens now live in cities, and most of them have little desire to trade urban living for a rural setting. “It is rare for Greeks to move for work,” says Tinios. Liapa says that while she’s not averse to the idea of leaving Athens, her fiancé cannot quit his job as a policeman: “I would consider moving to the countryside, but it’s difficult for us to leave when my boyfriend has a steady job.”

* This article was first published in Bloomberg Businessweek on April 25 2013.