Macedonian farmers have pinned their hopes for this year’s peach harvest on the Kurdish and Syrian refugees and the illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan who remain stuck at migrant camps in northern Greece.
The peach producers’ invitation to the thousands of unemployed Greeks in the region, offering good money, social security, food and accommodation, has run into the government’s social handouts: “We were unable to get them out of the cafeterias. They feel they are OK with the handouts. It’s as simple as that,” a cooperative farmer in Imathia told Kathimerini.
Last Wednesday, on the initiative of the Consortium of Cooperatives of Imathia Producers, a group of refugees from the migrant center at Alexandria was shown around the fields and the peach selection plants.
The consortium’s president, Christos Giannakakis, said an agreement has been reached for the employment of hundreds of refugees and immigrants, but he stressed that thousands more hands are required or the produce will rot.
At the age of 68, producer Antonis Goundis heads out to work in the Imathia fields at the break of dawn and these days doesn’t stop till sundown. It’s very tiring. This is the peach-picking period and he has not found enough workers, no matter how hard he looks. He is offering a good wage, as the law dictates, complete with social security and food, but there has been no response.
“Young people spend all day sitting in the cafeterias with their smartphones, smoking cigarettes, and do not come to the fields. Why should they work anyway? They get their social handouts and sit back. They’re not stupid. Those handouts have destroyed the fields,” Goundis tells Kathimerini. He has 260,000 square meters with peach and apricot trees and worries about his harvest.
“I cannot find any workers. No one comes,” he says, explaining he is busy doing the fruit picking with the help of 10 Albanian workers, while he needs at least twice as many hands. “These are good guys. I’ve known them a long time. They work 12 hours a day. But they are simply not enough. And our prefecture has 10,000 jobless people.”
Between 700,000 and 800,000 tons of produce (peaches, apricot, cherries etc) are ripening on the trees and will require 10,000-12,000 seasonal workers to harvest. The producers, the selection plants and the canning industry in the otherwise blessed fields of Macedonia are scared stiff.
Antonis Markovitis is the president of the Venus cooperative of farmers in Veria, the capital of Imathia: “While we have unemployment of 30 percent in our region, we cannot find any workers,” he complains to Kathimerini. “Until recently they would not come to the fields and the factories because they would lose the privileges of the long-term unemployed. When we managed, after exerting pressure [on the government], to have this labor excluded from the 70 seasonal daily wages [that a long-term unemployed person is allowed to collect without losing their benefits], the social handouts were the coup de grace. The jobless say: ‘Never mind. I now collect safe cash, while if I go and work and get a couple of thousand euros I will miss out on this handout.’ Therefore they stay away. They prefer the cafeteria.”
The compote industry is the most dynamic exporting sector in Greece: “Greek compote is first in sales around the world,” says the president of the Greek Canners Association, Costas Apostolou, but he is also concerned: “This year we have fewer workers. The benefits policy discourages labor and this is obvious in the difficulty in finding workers both for harvesting the crop and for the canning process.”
Are the peaches and apricots at risk of rotting on the trees? Giannakakis responds that “this would be disastrous. We have proposed to the minister of agriculture that work permits be issued to the Albanians who arrive in Greece on three-month tourism visas so that they can work in the fields. To date this has not happened.”
As things stand, the solution will again be found in undeclared labor, which farmers say they don’t like doing. It is well known in the Imathia fields that the fruit is picked by Albanians who arrive in Greece on a three-month visa and are paid under the table.
The legal procedure of inviting seasonal workers from Albania is hardly ever used anymore as it constitutes a bureaucratic nightmare, through international agreements, which discourages those interested. The workers would rather arrive on a tourism visa, work without social security for a few days, and return home with some cash in their pockets instead of enduring the hassle of the invitation process. “We cannot pay without receipts, because we need to present our expenses, the taxation is merciless. Inspections have intensified in the fields and the factories and if they catch us with any undeclared workers they will make us suffer,” Markovitis explains.
“By bringing in refugees, we will pay them legally and we will stop the Albanians from asking for exorbitant wages to come and work illegally,” says a unionist farmer in the region. “What is happening with the social handouts is dangerous. It is pushing the young people away from work. It is breeding a generation who have got accustomed to the handouts culture. They come and ask me what they have to do to get paid under the table so that they show a low income in their income tax declaration and collect the highest social benefit,” a labor consultant tells Kathimerini.
It is not just the undeclared labor in the fields, but also the illegal sale of produce: At night, loaded trucks leave for Bulgaria and Romania with no invoices: “The crooks approach the producer and say: ‘What’s the market price? Thirty cents per kilogram? Here is 25 cents/kilo in hand. I’ll give you an invoice for 5 cents/kilo or no invoice at all,’ and they load the trucks at night to leave for Bulgaria and Romania,” says Markovitis, stressing that the phenomenon is extensive and also known to the authorities.