Two giant poultry farms, Nitsiakos and Pindos, sit a few kilometres apart, outside the city of Ioannina in northwest Greece. It is a remote location for a disease outbreak.
These two businesses, together with Ambrosiadis in Katerini further to the east, are some of the biggest in Greece. They are pillars of their local economies, each employing hundreds of people. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, they also became infection hot spots.
In October 2020, Pindos announced that it was suspending the operation of its poultry processing plant after several cases of Covid-19 were identified. In June 2021, medical staff at Katerini hospital recorded 30 cases of Covid-19 among foreign workers at the Ambrosiadis plant – the outbreak had been kept secret.
In July 2021, Greece’s Civil Protection Agency ordered a temporary suspension of operations at Nitsiakos after tracing a local outbreak to its workers. The Mayor of Ioannina, Moses Elisaf, spoke at the time of a “serious and extremely worrying” situation, noting that “the people involved were unvaccinated, despite working in crowded, high-risk workplaces”.
In barns and slaughterhouses
Greece’s Food Safety Agency, EFET, classifies poultry farms as high-risk workplaces due to their crowded working conditions. But prioritising them for vaccinations is another matter.
Most poultry businesses work with Greek, Pakistani and Albanian subcontractors, who supply them with workers. Some of the workers have a residence permit or have been granted asylum. Many, however, are undocumented and under the legal working age of 18.
The exploitation of undocumented workers, which had been a humanitarian and employment-rights issue before the pandemic, has now evolved into a public-health issue - lack of access to vaccination undermines the entire national vaccination programme.
Hassan (his real name is known to Lighthouse Reports) is 19 years old and comes from Pakistan. He arrived in Greece in 2018 as an unaccompanied minor. The conditions he encountered here forced him to grow up quickly.
At 16, while still living in the “safe zone” for unaccompanied minors inside an accommodation facility for refugees and migrants, he took his first job at a poultry farm.
The exploitation of undocumented workers, which had been a humanitarian and employment-rights issue before the pandemic, has now evolved into a public-health issue
Working in the poultry farm is not easy. “You can be working in the poultry barns at night, picking up chickens with the truck, or in the slaughterhouse, or at the feeding stations,” said Hassan. “Many workers can’t cope with it and end up leaving.”
He spent several months without papers, but eventually he was granted leave to remain in the country on humanitarian grounds. This was not the case for other workers, and the legislation under which Hassan was given papers has now been rescinded.
“There have been anonymous reports of the poultry farms using undocumented workers,” said Despina Konstantinou, President of the Labour Centre union in Katerini. “However, they have been difficult to substantiate. […] They belong to different nationalities, they sometimes come from different parts of Greece and work for short stints.” This makes it almost impossible to cross-reference names with shift records.
“We still haven’t been given any information on vaccination,” Hassan said. “The only instruction we are given is to wear our protective suits. Not everyone is vaccinated.” Hassan took the initiative himself and got vaccinated three months ago, mainly, he said, because he was afraid. “Migrants are often given fines for no reason, but mostly I just didn’t want to catch the virus.”
It is not the same for his fellow workers: “Every week some people get sick. They leave and then they come back after 14 days. In the summer there were no cases, but now they have gone up.”
Greece is not the only country where the meat-processing sector has been at the epicentre of Covid-19 outbreaks. Similar incidents on an even greater scale were recorded across Europe. What sets Greece apart is the lack of official response to the problem. In Germany, for instance, the federal government passed a law in November 2020 barring meat processors from using temporary agency workers.
The ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) has urged EU member states to include the vaccination of migrants as a priority in their national vaccination plans. Lighthouse Reports has mapped vaccination policies in 18 European countries. In Greece, the lack of reliable, detailed public policy makes it difficult to draw conclusions. Greece scores low for access to vaccination by undocumented and marginalised populations.
The only targeted information campaign was Vaccines For All, co-organised by INTERSOS Hellas, the Greek Forum of Migrants, and the Greek Forum of Refugees. The campaign started in August 2021 with materials available in 10 languages.
According to Apostolos Veizis, a medical doctor and director of INTERSOS, vulnerable populations suspected that the pandemic could be used as a way to criminalise and deport them.
While the potential “blind spot” relating to undocumented migrants was already becoming evident in 2020, the government did not provide them access to vaccination until May 2021. In that month government guidance was issued allowing those with identification documents from their own countries to obtain a temporary social-security number (known by the Greek acronym PAMKA) to allow them to get vaccinated.
“Many migrants, however, lacked these papers”, said Veizis, “meaning they still lacked access to vaccination.”
On October 2, 2021, in response to pressure from civil-society organisations and public health experts, a new law (4839/2021) gave the undocumented the right to obtain a PAMKA number, which would allow them to get vaccinated without risking deportation. It also enabled local authorities and NGOs to participate in the vaccination programme.
In practice, however, there have been delays in implementing the law, and it is still not possible for most undocumented migrants to get vaccinated. A Joint Ministerial Decision issued in December 2021 – two months after the law was passed – gives them access to the official vaccination process. However, according to Lefteris Papagiannakis, a legal expert and director of the Greek Council for Refugees, this only opens the door to people who have some form of identification document, even if it is expired or invalid. People with no papers at all – the so-called “invisibles” – are still unable to register.
The poultry businesses and their subcontractors
Lighthouse Reports and Reporters United have contacted all three poultry businesses named in this investigation with questions relating to the story.
A spokesperson for Nitsiakos responded that “the vaccination rate among employees, including workers employed through subcontractors, approaches 90%.”
A member of the Ambrosiadis AVEE board denied the existence of “invisible” employees. “All workers here are real people. I can’t respond to hypothetical questions. There are no people without papers; that would be a matter for the Labour Inspectorate.”
A representative of Ambrosiadis acknowledged that there are workers in the company who are unvaccinated but claimed that all protocols are observed, including rapid tests, and that there is continuous monitoring in place.
The company’s spokesperson acknowledged that Ambrosiadis used subcontractors, claiming that this was due to a lack of Greek workers for the slaughterhouses. “The responsibility lies with the contractor who employs them, we have a relationship with them and not with the workers directly”.
Pindos did not respond to our requests for information.
Thodoris Nikolaou and Myriam Patrou contributed to reporting.
👉 Original article at Efimerida ton Syntakton