The news that farm foremen in the strawberry fields of Manolada fired on migrant workers, and the images of victims lying injured in the dirt, fell on us like a blow from a dagger – like something from another time, another place. It confirmed that at many levels Greece is in regression, falling back on archetypal behavior. The exploitation of helpless workers by landowners has always been part of the human adventure, just as the downtrodden have made heroic efforts to improve their lot. Greek peasants and workers have played a prominent role in such struggles over the past century and it is tragic that today we see Greeks treading on the rights of foreign workers, blackening the name of Greeks and undermining their past struggles.
The crime in Manolada in the western Peloponnese was not the first in the area, nor, of course, the first in Greece. Since 2006 we have known that at Manolada migrant fruit pickers – mainly from Bangladesh – work under terrible conditions for paltry pay, without rights, without protection. It was also known that employers did not hesitate to resort to violence through their foremen. The situation was similar in many other places and it affected undocumented migrants as well as many who had been here for years already. Generally, we knew that exploitation and injustice were the rule.
Only 100 years earlier (in 1907 to be precise), Greek landowners had ordered the murder of Marinos Antypas, an activist who was organizing the landless peasants of Thessaly. Three years later, the battle between peasants and state officials at Kileler in Thessaly became a landmark in the Greek farmers’ emancipation.
But the struggles of the Greek workers were not limited to Greece. Ilias Spantidakis of Crete, who became known as Louis Tikas in the United States, earned a place in the history of the US labor movement when he lead a major strike by Colorado coal miners. On April 20, 1914, he was murdered, along with another 18 or so striking workers, by militia serving the interests of mine owners. All over the world, Greeks have battled for human rights. In South Africa, lawyer George Bizos remains on the frontline of the struggle for justice, from defending Nelson Mandela at his trial in 1963-4 to representing the families of mine workers killed by police at a protest last year.
Foreign workers have kept Greek production alive over the past years, often suffering great deprivation. They have a right to humane working conditions and reasonable pay, rather than to be at the mercy of brutal employers and an indifferent state, which neither protects them nor punishes those who commit crimes against them.
To honor that which makes us proud in our past, all of us – farmers, the police, the judiciary, and especially we citizens – must take our country back from the barbarians who move with impunity among us.