Saturday, January 26, 2008

Greek priests advocate for immigrants

Seven Orthodox priest in northeastern Greece are defending the rights of immigrants who are forced to endure sweatshop conditions. They want zero tolerance for slave wages, sweatshops, and racism.

Thursday, January 24, 2008By Kathy Tzilivakis

Seven village priests in the northeastern Greek prefecture of Arta have joined forces to campaign against the exploitation of immigrant workers.

Their message is clear: zero tolerance towards slave wages, sweatshop conditions and racism.

"We sent an open letter to the local media here in Arta in hopes of raising public awareness about the plight of immigrant workers in Greece," Father Haralambos of the town of Grammenitsa told the Athens News. "There are people who have fled their homeland, where they can never return, who endure low wages, long hours and substandard accommodation. We have to help them."

Father Haralambos and six priests from the Arta towns of Kalamia, Kostakio, Rokka, Hanopoulou and Halkiadon, where the total population does not exceed 10,000, launched their campaign to promote the rights of immigrants living and working in Greece on Christmas Eve after dozens of Romanian immigrants, including young children, nearly died during a fire started in a makeshift wood stove. The immigrants were housed in squalid conditions on a poultry farm in the town of Kostakio.

"People from faraway countries are outside our door naked and in need," reads the priests' letter. "A complete lack of compassion and shame is reminiscent of the Dark Ages... We don't care about a person's needs or his pain. He is cheap labour. What will he eat? Who cares where will he sleep?"

But pressure has been building on employers in Greece to treat immigrant workers fairly. After a landmark Supreme Court ruling was passed in November, employers are thinking twice about exploiting migrant workers, including those who are undocumented.

The court sided with two Albanian farm workers who claimed they had been paid much less than the minimum wage and systematically denied overtime pay before and after they secured legal residence status. Based on the ruling, even undocumented migrants are entitled to collect unpaid wages, plus a penalty, from their unscrupulous employers. Had the court ruled otherwise, it would have reduced employers' potential liability and made it more financially attractive to hire undocumented workers.

As the debate over the one million-odd immigrants in Greece grows increasingly heated and messy, Father Haralambos, who was ordained eight years ago, says he has started using his religious message to express support for immigrants and call for legislative reform.

Father Haralambos says he believes the Greek state is not doing enough to promote the integration of immigrants, who currently make up 10 percent of the country's population of roughly 11 million.

"We need a more organised effort from the state," he says. "We are trying to do what we can to help immigrants. We collect food and clothing, but we need more organised efforts... We have to help them no matter what. We are deeply troubled by the situation today."

A religious response

It is not the first time the Greek Church has spoken out on the issue. Three years ago, Archbishop Christodoulos told an Athens conference that the state and society ought to "embrace" immigrants. Taking a pro-immigrant stance, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church said Greeks must respect the human rights of all foreigners.

"The Greek Church wants and can contribute to the integration of migrants, regardless of their ethnicity and religion," he said.

This past November and December, Father Timotheos Anthis of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece and local Muslim Imam Munir Mahmood held joint talks around Athens in an effort to spread an inter-faith message of solidarity. These public dialogues were arranged by the synod as part of European Union-wide activities marking the end of the 2007 Year of Equal Opportunities.

According to research conducted by the synod, immigrant Muslims residing in Athens suffer racism and ethnic discrimination, especially in the labour market. Many of the immigrant Muslims participating in the survey expressed displeasure with employers who they said do not respect their religious holidays and celebrations.

Greece secured 3.6 million euros from the European Union last year to help fund its new initiative to integrate the country's immigrants into the workplace and society. The integration plan, known as Estia (Home), was drafted by the interior ministry. It is the country's first ever major attempt to integrate immigrants.

But a new report drafted by a special parliamentary committee has found that xenophobia is rife in Greece. Ruling New Democracy MP Elsa Papadimitriou, who chaired the committee, told a session of parliament last week that Greek society "has caught the social ailment - the epidemic of racism and xenophobia".

"Immigration is a parameter of globalisation, and we must look at it through the prism of peaceful cohabitation of peoples," Papadimitriou told parliament.

Leftist parliamentarians took the opportunity to call for a general amnesty for all undocumented migrants.

Kathy Tzilivakis writes for Athens News and appears here with permission.


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