The shops along the main road of Lappa, a small village in the northwestern Peloponnese, differ from the shops you’d find in other provincial areas in Greece. The signs on the few shops − cafes, souvlaki joints, bakeries − written in Greek, intermingle with other shop signs in Bengali. The shop owners, who are from Bangladesh, are well aware of the needs of their consumers: the community of thousands of their fellow migrant land workers, who live in the area and work in the strawberry fields.
There are people, in all regions of Greece, who fear that local populations will become “distorted” by the arrival of refugees and immigrants. There is one area, however, where this “distortion” has already occurred, but it is a welcome change and for years it has become a necessary one. This area is Manolada, in the Peloponnese.
“Manolada” refers to the broader area in the prefecture of Ilia in the Peloponnese, about 40 kilometers west of Patras, which includes the villages of Manolada, Nea Manolada, Neo Vouprasio, Lappa, and Varda. The most recent census in Greece took place in 2011. At that time, Manolada had a population of 844, Lappas 1,000, and Neo Vouprasio 128. But the actual number of people living in the area is much higher.
As we drive along the road that connects the villages, we arrive at Nea Manolada. Although it’s Sunday morning, there’s not much attendance at the church in the center of the village, rather all the activity is outside the neighboring betting shop, where a group of men of Indian descent are gathered, with betting slips in their hands.
Next to the Greek shops, the abandoned village houses and the two-story dwellings with large yards – a community has developed, people who live in dilapidated farmhouses and makeshift camps, well-hidden from the main streets.They mostly live without papers, undocumented, invisible to the Greek state. Like Ali.
Manolada’s “red gold”
Although his soft voice, facial features and body type suggest that he may be much younger, Ali tells Solomon that he’s 17 years old. In 2004, when he was born, strawberries in Manolada were among the many products cultivated in the area and there were 1,200 stremmata (approx. 300 acres) of strawberry fields.
The reason the teenager from Bangladesh and up to 10,000 migrant workers have come to the area is that in past decades, strawberry production has increased rapidly. In 2012, it covered 12,000 stremmata (approx. 3,000 acres) and is currently estimated to have exceeded 15,000 stremmata (approx. 3,750 acres).
Manolada is host to more than 90 percent of the total strawberry production in Greece, which is almost entirely available for export. In a recent report, one of the major producers in the region, Giannis Arvanitakis, refers to an “exclusively exportable product” adding that “only 4% of production” is slated for the Greek market.
“Red gold” – the term coined by the Greek prime minister at the time, George Papandreou − refers to an industry worth tens of millions of euros which is constantly growing. According to the Union of Fruit & Produce Exporters, every year the region’s strawberry exports break the record of the previous year.
In 2020, despite the pandemic, when producers were forced to discard part of their product, as it could not be exported, strawberry exports generated 54,967 tons (worth €71.7 million), which was an increase from 2019, at 45,178 tons (€55.4 million). In 2021, “Red gold” production and exports are expected to exceed that of 2020. And producers estimate that by 2025, strawberry fields in the area will cover 25,000 stremmata (approx. 6,200 acres).
Greek strawberries by Bangladeshi workers
It is estimated that the reason for the success of the strawberry industry is the dam on the Pineios River, which makes the soil of Manolada so fertile. Another key component is the cheap labor.
Until about 15 years ago, in Manolada, the labor force consisted of Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Egyptian land workers. Since then, while a small number of mostly Bulgarians and Romanians still arrive at the beginning of each season, the vast majority of land workers are Bangladeshis and to a lesser extent, Pakistanis. Bangladeshis are much cheaper than their Balkan predecessors, as they are content with a daily wage of €24 for a seven-hour workday, compared to €35-€40 for other nationalities.
The relationship that has been established between the strawberry production and the labor force that ensures it, has become so well-connected that the majority of Bangladeshi land workers in Manolada come from the same city, Sylhet, which is located in northeastern Bangladesh. In recent years, Solomon has visited Manolada several times, and has covered, among other topics, the challenges that thousands of land workers faced during the pandemic.
During our visits, we discovered the existence of “second generation” land workers. For example, young men who came to Manolada to join their fathers who have been working in the region for years, or people like Ali who came to find his uncle, after he told him that “there’s work to be found here” (but Ali didn’t meet him after all, as the uncle moved on to Italy).
The strawberry industry employs both highly skilled land workers, who may have more than ten years of experience, as well as newcomers who head to Manolada as soon as they cross the border. The season starts at the end of September and ends in late June. At its peak, after December, it is estimated that up to 9,000 land workers work six days a week in the greenhouses. The housing conditions in which most of them live are no different than the greenhouses that surround them..
The camps of Manolada
The camps are scattered among vast strawberry fields. They consist of about a dozen makeshift shelters – known as “parages”, “shacks” in greek – constructed using reeds for the base and frame. The “walls” are made with the same plastic sheets (used for the greenhouses), reinforced with blankets. In the camp we visited, more than 100 people were living in dozens of makeshift shelters. Most sleep on pallets, in two rows on either side of the space. With so many people living in such a small space, it is impossible to follow social distancing rules. In the spring, the heat inside the shacks is stifling, and the fans, spin 24/7.
In most parts of the camp, the smell is suffocating, as the toilet is a hole in the ground. There is no running water and those who live in the camp must wash outdoors; thus in winter they are often sick, and if unable to work, they don’t receive their daily wages. Two stalls act as kitchens and there are four water tanks sheltered under a canopy. There’s a makeshift mosque, where some of the workers go each afternoon after work, in clean clothes, to pray.
The necessary system of “masturs”
Kasef has been in Greece for a year. He crossed the Greek-Turkish border at the Evros River, and as he traveled inland, he was caught by the authorities and detained for 15 days at a police station. He was then held for three months in Drama, at the Pre-Removal Detention Center of Paranesti.
He has received a letter urging him to leave the country within a month and has applied for asylum. Kasef says he has been wearing the same pants since he arrived in the country and complains that because he is Pakistani, he receives less pay than the others.
“There is very little work,” he says. If Kasef was in Greece a few decades ago, he would’ve spent his days wandering the fields asking for work. If he was in a northern European country, he might have turned to an employment agency. But not in Manolada. Here, land workers don’t have a strong tie to their employers − they often don’t even know their employer’s full name, perhaps only their first name, if it’s even their actual name. Land workers in Manolada rather build relationships with the masturs, who act as mediators between workers and producers, and in the camps where the workers live.
The masturs or commanda are their compatriots. Usually, they’re people who’ve been living in Manolada for years, who started out as land workers, can speak some Greek, and have gained the trust of the producers. They no longer work in the fields. During the day, they can be found at the village mini-markets sipping energy drinks or ordering supplies for the camp, which are purchased on credit and always paid in full at the end of each month.
“It just can’t be done without the mastur“
The masturs maintain close ties with local producers. When the season is over, they don’t travel to other areas like the other workers, but they remain in Manolada to help with other work. A small producer in the area, who agreed to speak to Solomon on the condition of anonymity, stated that the mastur is crucial for the operation of the industry, “without the mastur it just can’t be done,” he said.
The mastur is given all of the workers’ wages and at the end of the month he distributes the money to them, keeping €1 per day of the €24 per day which each person receives.
He employs about 20 land workers in his fields, and he is unable to coordinate and communicate with them on his own. He simply tells the mastur how many people he needs, and the mastur takes care of the rest – he goes to the camp and gathers the needed workers.
The mastur is given all of the workers’ wages and at the end of the month he distributes the money to them, keeping €1 per day of the €24 per day which each person receives. However, in recent years some mastur in Manolada ask their compatriots for €100-€200 at the beginning of the season to find them a job, causing their indignation. It is extremely rare for land workers living in the same camp to work for the same employer. During the season, depending on the needs and the available daily wages, they can be employed by more than one producer − always through the mediation of the mastur.
€40 rent for a plastic tent
The land workers are obliged to pay €30-€40 per month in rent to the mastur, money that usually goes to the owner of the field. However, when we told the small producer who spoke to us that every migrant living in the camp on his field is paying rent every month, he replied that he has not received any payment for this.
“Let them just give me money to cover the electricity bill and I don’t want anything else,” he said.
For the owners of fields, where up to 100 people are housed in camps, there is a tax-free monthly income of €3,000. We visited a farm house where there were a total of 65 people living in a shared common space. The residents there pay €30-€40 each per month − a total of about €2,000 per month for living in horrible conditions.
The living and working conditions in the area first became widely known in 2007, when a fire in a camp broke out, exposing the crudely-built structures. But the event that brought international attention to the situation in Manolada occurred in 2013.
In April of that year, about 150 Bangladeshi workers, who were employed in the strawberry fields, went on strike and demanded they be paid their back wages. Their employer, Nikos Vangelatos, who had been in the area for a few years but owned a significant percentage of the total production through contract farming, refused to pay them.
When an attempt was made by the employer to hire other land workers to replace them, 150 of the unpaid migrant workers gathered to protest. Their supervisors initially fled, only to return with shotguns. One of the supervisors opened fire, injuring 30 Bangladeshis.
The incident made international headlines, and reports described the industry in Manolada as “blood strawberries”. An international boycott followed. Since then, the strawberries cultivated in the area are no longer promoted as being from “Manolada” (which used to be a mark of a quality product) but rather from “Ilia” (the prefecture where Manolada is located).
The absence of the state
On 30 April 2013, in the aftermath of the attack on land workers, the Regional Council of Western Greece called for a state investigation. The Deputy Regional Head of the Ilia Prefecture Haralambos Kafiras presented “three essential conditions for restoring law and human dignity to the region”: issuing proper documentation to immigrants, developing safe and hygienic living conditions, and protecting the workers’ labor and individual rights.
Vassilis Kerasiotis is the lawyer who represented the injured land workers. In 2017, the case was heard in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and the accused supervisor was condemned, in 2019, to a reduced sentence of eight years imprisonment, which can be paid off at €5 per day. Kerasiotis still maintains strong ties with the region. We asked him if he thinks things have changed in terms of the three essential conditions, in the eight years since the incident occurred.
“These three essential conditions are interrelated. Clearly, the main issue is to regulate their employment status, in a framework of legal seasonal migrant land workers. The rights of legal immigrants are more easily protected than those who are undocumented,” he told Solomon.
“However, this will create a more transparent system, without using mediators in the recruitment of land workers needed for agricultural production.” Following the decision of the ECHR, which issued a judgement against Greece for violation of the prohibition of human trafficking and forced labor in the agricultural sector, the Greek state was obliged to comply and ensure decent living conditions for the thousands of migrant land workers.
It’s either Manolada or a detention center
For the majority of Bangladeshis in Manolada, the reality is very different in relation to what the traffickers had promised them before they arrived in Greece: most still lack the papers they were promised, the wages are significantly lower, and many intend only to stay here until they decide what their next step will be.
Often, those who get papers leave the area; some open their own shop in a city or work as dishwashers in restaurants. However, until they get their papers, in the meantime they prefer to remain here, where they know that the police − who are tolerant of the workers who ensure the region’s production of “red gold” − will not bother them.
They may not know much about Greece, but they know that if they are caught by police somewhere outside of the Manolada area, they may end up in a Pre-Departure Detention Center and they know they could be held there for up to 18 months.
The 65 Bangladeshis we met who were sharing the small farmhouse, showed us videos on their phones of such a detention center in Corinth, of the uprising that followed the suicide of a Kurdish detainee last March.
In the video, young men can be seen shouting at the guards, from behind the barbed wire that restricts their lives for endless months. The Bangladeshis tell us, “No, it’s better here.”
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