Immigrants inject new life into farming communities once at risk of dying out

It appears that the difficult stage of gaining acceptance is over for economic immigrants – read Albanians – and has been replaced by the stage of assimilation, not so much a result of changed immigration policy but of the forces that have emerged within Greek society itself. The presence of economic immigrants has acted as a catalyst, above all for the farming population, where it has transformed traditional roles, freeing women from field work to seek other jobs. Immigrants’ skills have also contributed to the refurbishment of traditional buildings and have revived villages that had been all but abandoned. In fact, their role is so central to the farming economy that, according to reliable Kathimerini sources, some of them are now seeking European Union subsidies to cultivate land themselves. One could say that in certain cases Greece’s farmland has come alive again thanks to economic immigrants, so it is very likely that the legalization of immigrants’ status will lead to claims for better pay and working conditions outside agriculture and farming areas as well. This is something that should be taken into consideration while planning agricultural policy, according to Professor Haralambos Kasimis of the University of Patras’s Faculty of Agricultural Sociology. Kasimis also headed and coordinated a research program into the effects of the settlement and employment of the foreign work force in the countryside. The program was carried out by the universities of Patras and Ioannina in 2000-2002, in three sample farming communities (one on the plains with dynamic agriculture, another in a «disadvantaged» mountainous region and a third combining farming and other activities). The results show that 66.2 percent of farming households employ a non-family member for farm work, 90 percent of whom are foreigners and of these, three-quarters are Albanian. Respondents in all three areas were generally positive about the presence of immigrants, mainly because they have increased the available work force, reduced labor costs and helped increase consumption. Nearly half of all households said the effects on the local economy were «very positive» or «positive,» 29 percent said «both positive and negative» and only 17 percent said the effects were «negative» or «very negative.» This latter group felt the negative effects had mainly to do with the effect on the local work force, unemployment and the export of foreign exchange. The immigrant work force has changed the lives of family members on the farm. As they do the heavier work, they free the head of the household from manual labor and his wife from her role in these jobs. They have also freed other members of the family (sons and daughters), even allowing them to leave the farming community altogether. «In areas where farming is developing dynamically, farmers have virtually become businessmen, mainly occupied with organizing and managing their holdings. In mountainous areas, immigrants have helped some communities survive, providing cheap labor in many sectors,» said Kasimis. Respondents emphasized the fact that they had been able to expand the area cultivated (30 percent) and better organize their farms (19 percent), thanks to immigrant labor. Where farming is combined with other activities, 16 percent said that production had increased, and 11 percent that they were better able to organize their activities and ensure better product quality. In mountainous areas, the respondents said foreign workers enabled them to continue with non-profitable farming activities and had contributed in many ways to supporting these households. Moreover, added Kasimis, elderly farmers now had people on hand who could maintain their homes, care for their animals, cut wood for winter, and in general enable them to continue their traditional way of life, which otherwise might not have been possible. In many cases, immigrants have earned an important place in small communities. In some villages they run the village cafe, preserving a form of social life in these areas. Immigrants’ contribution to the demography of the countryside is important as young people move to the cities. Greek men are now marrying immigrants; this is particularly important for livestock breeders, as it lets them stay on the land.

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