Along the Patras – Pyrgos National Highway, at a radius of about 5 kilometres around the village of Nea Manolada, the makeshift sheds out of thick plastic and cardboard can be hardly seen behind the greenhouses hidden among the reeds. It is where more than 7,500 farmworkers, mainly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, live and work mostly without the necessary legal formalities in strawberry harvest.
Every year, this part of the prefecture of Ilia produces about 90% of Greek strawberries, most of which for exports. Up to February, all forecasts indicated that this would be one of the best years for strawberries, both in terms of production and in terms of trading. Nobody could imagine the blow that coronavirus and the closure of borders were to bring about on cultivations.
As soon as mid March, great quantities of strawberries were thrown in fields and rivers, as the foreign markets were closed, the orders were cancelled and the domestic market could not absorb the huge production.
As a result the labourers from Bangladesh and Pakistan had no work most days of the month or worked only a few hours, trying to survive in horrid living conditions, packed in makeshift sheds made of plastic sheets, without electricity or running water. With their wages diminishing, most labourers are now facing serious survival problems, which are expected to get worse after the end of the cultivating season.
It has been reported that in March leaflets were handed out providing information about the coronavirus and the preventive and health measures that must be followed. Yet, this is not enough.
The pandemic and the fear of infections was the last entry in a list of long-standing problems and the unacceptable living conditions of the immigrant farmworkers, which have not improved in the slightest despite the conviction of the European Court of Human Rights “Chowdury and others V Greece”.
Nowadays, most farmworkers, residents of a strange town built of hard cardboard boxes, plastic and reeds are suffering the destructive impact of the pandemic, are concerned about their future and dream to leave Greece as soon as the condition is normalised.
“In the summer, we can hardly breathe in the greenhouses as they are too hot and humid. In the winter, we suffer from the cold and rain. Is this a living? We spent all day bent over strawberries for 24 Euros. Look at my hands; they are always red. And now, there’s not even that”, says Muhammed. “When the borders open, I will try to go to another country in Europe. And if I can’t make it, then I’d rather go back home, to Bangladesh.”