Harvesting seen as work for foreign migrants

On the plain of Yiannitsa, producers have not had a Greek working to harvest the fruit for 10 years. Until the early 1990s, groups of youths from Western Macedonia and whole families from Vevi of Florina or Deskati near Grevena would descend on the plain of Central Macedonia to harvest the peaches and tobacco. This mobile farming population supplemented its annual earnings and met the need for extra labor every summer in Imathia and Pella. It was a hectic time, as the harvest could not wait in the fields, and extra hands were needed apart from the family. Today, gathering the peaches, pears and tobacco is no longer a family concern and does not depend on Greek labor, despite the high unemployment levels. Today these are mere memories imprinted on yellowing photographs of workers and producers posing in front of houses on the plain or in the mountain villages of Western Macedonia. The voices of Arben, Ilir, Pesnik, Elvira from Albania and of Christos and Stefkas from Bulgaria have replaced those of Greek workers, and the plain at times resembles a teeming Balkan square. Here the Greeks are limited to the role of employer; the young from the villages are absent, preferring not to work rather than cultivate the land. Scorn «What is happening now on the plains of Imathia and Pella is a powerful message about the future of Greek farming,» said Mr Hatsiantoniou, president of the Federation of Agricultural Unions of Pella. «The profession of a farmer is now regarded with scorn.» «The majority of the farmers,» added producer Stergios Tsitroudis, «do not want to encourage their children to work the land.» Most of the unskilled youngsters in the area prefer to take jobs with lower earnings or to relocate elsewhere in Greece rather than collect peaches. «I’m not an Albanian to work in the fields,» was the response of a young person in Yiannitsa, preferring part-time work in a supermarket to a daily wage of 30 to 35 euros in the fields. According to recent data, over 15,000 foreign workers come every year to Imathia and Pella to work in the fields. Four-hundred-thousand tons of table peaches, the same number of peaches for industrial purposes, 4,000 tons of pears, 13,000 tons of asparagus and 12,000 tons of tobacco are handled by foreign workers, and at the end of the harvesting period 9 million euros leave Greece for neighboring countries. The predominance of foreign workers in the fields is indicative of the problems that have beset Greek farming. As Hatsiantoniou pointed out, «the lack of family agricultural investment is prevalent, and, apart from anything else, it cancels out any effort for quality upgrading resulting in an inability to compete with competitive cultivation methods and products from other European countries.» Sinan Teli, 28, from Elbasan, Alben Douka, 29, their son-in-law Ramazan Bardi and nephew Alexi are some of the Albanians that we met while touring the Yiannitsa plain during the last days of the harvest for industrial peaches. They have all been coming to Galatades, Melissi in Pella and surrounding villages every summer for the last 10 years. They consider the wage of 20 to 25 euros for the peaches and 35 to 40 euros for tobacco satisfactory, but the living conditions, as one of their compatriots, Giamir Kaziou, working 12 summers collecting tobacco described, «are inhuman.» With the exception of those gathering asparagus, most of the migrants, to save money (otherwise they would have to pay the OGA insurance fund and the authorities for visa permits), stay in shacks, pump houses or warehouses where the living conditions are appalling. Quite a few Bulgarians come with the whole family to work extra hours in the afternoon in the greenhouses in the area, where they are paid just 3 euros an hour. The producers place their demands for workers through embassies in October and November. The first workers for the new harvest arrive in early March and theoretically have been in their homeland for a period of six months since last leaving Greece. In reality though, a foreign worker will be employed to collect asparagus in Pella in the spring, then cherries, peaches and pears, and in the autumn will move to Halkidiki or southern Greece (such as Kalamata and Crete) to harvest olives.