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The impact of the current economic crisis

Greece benefited from high economic growth and increased prosperity between 1995 and 2008. During this period the country joined the euro area and, in 2004, successfully organised the Olympic Games in Athens. Improved infrastructure and higher standards of living implied that Greece was moving away from its Balkan past and gradually joining the club of the rich countries of central and northern Europe (Kretsos 2010).

When the supply of documented foreign labour does not match the demand for labour, the result is increased irregular migration, and the informal economy is the natural point of insertion into the labour force. Informal work constitutes a defining feature of the Greek employment system, setting Greece apart from other members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other more advanced developed economies. During the boom years, irregular migrants were also part of this story. Many migrants found jobs in the construction, service and agricultural sectors. Prior to the economic crisis, Greece had one of the largest underground economies amongst the 21 members of the OECD, and the largest in Europe. Between 1999 and 2001, the rate of undeclared work stood at 30 percent of GDP (Schneider and Enste 2000 & 2002; Schneider & Klinglmair 2014). A more recent study calculates that the shadow economy was about 24.3 percent of GDP amounting to unreported transactions amounting to €27b (Schneider 2012).

However, the growth in migrant labour was not accompanied by improved working conditions. Indeed the growth in consumption was predicated on widespread violation of labour laws and the wage exploitation of a large pool of unskilled migrants. The acid attack on the Bulgarian immigrant union leader Konstantina Kounieva in 2008 is typical of the relationship between migrant labour and sections of the host population. The precarious position of irregular, but also regular, migrants from Africa and Asia within Greek society was reinforced by the absence of basic citizenship rights: no voting rights; no right to unionise; labour law violations; unsafe working conditions and wage exploitation. Many employers began to develop a system of direct control over their irregular migrant labour force which, in some cases, amounted to a pre-capitalist feudal relationship between employer and employee (Guardian 2013).

The economic crisis transformed the already highly disorganised nature of immigration in Greece. In 2010, the coalition government of Antonis Samaras accepted a bailout package from the so-called ‘troika’ of the European Commission (EC) on behalf of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for implementing drastic austerity measures, including widespread public sector job and salary cuts. Since then, precarious work arrangements and welfare state retrenchment have expanded the number of people at high risk of poverty and social exclusion (Kretsos 2014).

Unemployment, in turn, has risen to almost 30 percent across the workforce, while young workers face a hostile work environment and a bleak job future with unemployment rates higher than 60 percent (Kretsos 2014). The measures stipulated by the initial and subsequent loan agreements include wage cuts; pay freezes; large-scale dismissals in the public sector; restructuring of public enterprises; a lower minimum wage for young workers and increases to retirement age thresholds.

For example, a few months after the first loan agreement in May 2010, the Greek government introduced further dramatic labour market reforms by forcing the decentralisation of collective bargaining and the relaxation of restrictions on the number of collective dismissals at company level. Accordingly, the minimum wage, determined by the national general collective agreement, was lowered by 22 percent at all levels based on seniority, marital status and daily/monthly wages.1 A further 10 percent cut in wages for workers under the age of 25 was also introduced, and for apprentices the minimum wage now stands at 68 percent of the level officially agreed.2

In general, financial support from the troika, and especially the IMF, has been conditional on reductions in public deficits and public spending, initiating drastic labour market reform and a welfare retrenchment unprecedented in the post war period (Hall 2011). Structural reforms and labour market reorganisation have been undertaken in line with the troika’s argument that labour market regulation and social protection in Greece has constituted a significant barrier to growth and a main driver of public debt (Koukiadaki and Kretsos 2012).

For Deakin and Wilikinson (2011), far-reaching changes in industrial relations and labour law in Greece have established a neo-liberal model of economic governance. The result of budgetary cost-cutting is that social risks are transferred from government and employers to individual citizens. A dismantling of social insurance fails to guarantee job or income security. Not surprisingly, precarious work becomes widespread in such an economic context.

In early 2015, as poverty continues to bite, migrants and asylum seekers are finding it harder to make ends meet. Gaps in the formal immigration policy (Baldwin-Edwards 2011), as well as severe limitations in enforcing the law in a wide range of areas from the labour law to taxation (Koukiadaki and Kretsos 2012), a large underground economy and a high unemployment rate are pushing irregular immigrants to their limits. Indicative of this are the data found in a recent parliamentary review. Between 2009 and 2012 the number of migrants with papers decreased by 80,000 to 100,000, while, as mentioned earlier, the total number of irregular migrants is no more than 350,000 (nanayewpyiou Kai Такой 2014; Maroukis 2012). While this situation demands a focussed and holistic response from policy-makers, the actual reaction, at least on the part of the Samaras government, has been tougher border controls and stricter anti-immigration laws.

Government rhetoric criminalises and scapegoats the migrant, contributing to a steep rise in racism and xenophobia (Global Detention 2014).. This is made clear by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants in Greece,

I am deeply concerned about the widespread xenophobic violence and attacks against migrants in Greece, and I strongly condemn the inadequate response by the law enforcement agencies to curb this violence, and to punish those responsible. I have also been informed of several cases of police involvement in these attacks. Many of these cases go unreported as irregular migrants fear they will be detained and deported if they contact the police. (Crepeau 2013)

To summarise, the economic crisis instigated more virulent anti-migrant discourse and activities. Such sentiments are fed by political parties such as Golden Dawn that gain political capital and power out of fear of the ‘other. Not surprisingly, immigration has become the dominant feature of Greece’s political debate. The next section will explore how this hostility towards migrants is expressed.

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