Myconos, Paros, Santorini and Andros are islands you may have visited. Perhaps you’ve been to all of them. Now imagine that all the residents of those islands disappeared, having packed their belongings and boarded a plane, never to return, and imagine that they all moved to Britain.
This is the thought that stuck in my mind as I visited London recently with a group of friends, where we learned that 62,000 (mostly young) Greeks have migrated to the United Kingdom over the past seven years. It really is as if everyone on those four Cycladic islands picked up and relocated to the UK, or as though all of Ioannina moved there. For us though, it felt as if they’d all moved to the British capital.
It had been more than seven years since any of us had been to London, and that’s probably why some of the encounters we had were memorable. “How can I help you?” we were asked in Greek by a young man at a cafe on Oxford Street. Soon afterward in Soho a saleswoman at a bakery invited us to try a kind of spanakopita (spinach pie). Then in the evening at an Asian restaurant we thought someone was playing a joke on us. Not only was our waiter Greek but he informed us that another two of our compatriots worked there.
Almost subconsciously we all started keeping a mental log of these encounters as we found ourselves running into Greeks all over the place. In the past they would more likely have been tourists, but now they were people who’d moved there to work.
The largest wave of Greek migration to Britain occurred after 2012. According to data from the UK’s National Insurance Fund, 7,500 Greeks started working in the country in 2012, 9,800 in 2013 and 12,000 in 2015. What kinds of jobs have they taken? “Any kind you can imagine,” said NP, who was among the first new immigrants to arrive. “In England you don’t just find Greeks employed in the finance sector, you also find them working as doctors, directors and musicians. There are Greeks in the construction sector too,” he said, explaining that few back home are aware of “how many thousands of engineers and architects have migrated here from our country, bringing their whole crews along with them.”
“If you want to find a job, you’ll find one. If your English is good and you have experience, it’s even easier,” said ES, who’s worked as a manager at a well-known clothing store chain since 2014. “The minimum income after taxes is 1,300 pounds (1,480 euros). If you have a bachelor’s degree you start on 1,500 pounds (1,700 euros). If you’re good at what you do your income quickly goes up and you move up the career ladder. However, life is very expensive here and most of us live with roommates. To give you an idea, the monthly rent for a small three-room apartment is 2,000 pounds,” she told us.
Taking the leap
In Greece, GS had a staff position at a company that sells electronic devices, but in 2011 he was laid off. “When I arrived in London I wasn’t keen on looking for the same kind of job, so I decided to apply for sales positions. Many Greeks here have faced similar dilemmas, having to reassess their skills and qualifications; but with hard work, and tenacity, taking the leap can pay off,” he told us.
“In London, if you make smart moves, you can quickly rise up the ranks professionally, because new positions open all the time and changing employers is a normal occurrence here,” said TS. His first job in 2011 was working as a busboy at a small taverna, but by the time we met him, he was the front desk manager of one of the most famous restaurants in Piccadilly. “I work more than 50 hours a week, but I’m not complaining as I have a good income and, besides, anyone who wants to get ahead here works like this,” he said.
What he then told us was memorable. “Until 2011 you would never see a Greek waiter or, say, clothing salesperson; it was usually someone from Italy or Spain or France doing such work. Now hundreds of Greeks work in such positions and I often think many would have been ashamed to do the same jobs in Greece. But in England they don’t feel that way because they understand that here there is respect for anyone who does their job professionally.”
He was right. The most surprising thing for us was the exemplary courtesy shown by the Greek workers we encountered.
As has worked in London since before the crisis. “What I’ve noticed in recent years in England is that Greeks – whether out of pride or ego, or maybe even out of our notorious filotimo [love of honor] – are easily distinguishable when there are certain measures we all respect without discrimination, when we feel that there is fairness, meritocracy and rewarding of the best,” she told us.
This encouraging perspective gave us an even more optimistic thought: that thousands of those Greeks who struggle to make a living, but excel when given the chance, will one day be in a position to help Greece when it finally turns the page, when the conditions finally arise for them to return with their knowledge and experience, with a totally different mentality and professional principles and values that, unfortunately, here in Greece have for years been the exception rather than the rule.
Mazi, Opso, The Life Goddess, Carpo: These are some of the new Greek restaurants and delis that have opened up in London since the outbreak of the crisis in Greece. It’s notable that there are many Greek chefs who’ve excelled in the UK, with one Greek we met telling us about an experience that could be made into a movie.
The owner of a pizzeria he worked at as a waiter in the Peloponnesian town of Kranidi wouldn’t let him cook. So, on his own dime, he traveled to London, took cooking lessons and found a job as an assistant chef at an Indian restaurant. A few months later he convinced the owner to provide him with the financial backing to open a new restaurant in central London where he would be the chef. Today it’s one of the most successful Mexican restaurants in town.
There are many other Greek success stories in the UK. For example, 32-year-old Takis Malavetas is the CEO and co-founder of Convibo, a startup company that launched in March last year and delivers 40,000 products from various supermarkets to people’s homes within an hour of them placing their online order.
The flip side
Of course there is also the flip side. The owner of a very successful company providing high-quality tourism services, which was based in Greece and employed 40 people, decided six months ago to relocate his entire operation to London. We asked him why. “In England, an annual salary, after taxes, of 28,000 pounds costs me 36,000 pounds when you count the taxes.
In Greece the same salary is 32,000 euros but there it would cost me 60,000 euros to employ someone at that salary level. I think you understand now why I left despite the fact that I fought as much as I could to avoid it,” he told us with a bitter smile.