Debunking illusions about immigration: the case of Greece

One of the myths that enjoys general acceptance on the left is actually a millstone around its neck: the idea that mass immigration does no harm to native workers’ wages, working conditions and employment opportunities, and therefore opposition to it is misguided or else disguised racism. As I will show in this piece, the idea that immigration does not adversely affect native-born workers is so wrong it’s delusional. (I leave aside for now the idea that anti-immigration views reflect ‘racism’ because – even if true – this raises the question of whether it is the proper role of leftwing political activists to seek to reform people of their racist views.)

Greece, the European country which has experienced the highest influx of immigrants in recent times, offers an open and shut case of the negative impact of immigration on a country, albeit one that, as we shall see, neoliberal commentators have tried to paper over by making unsubstantiated assertions about popular attitudes. From 1991, onwards, the country was flooded with (mostly illegal) immigrants from Albania, Bulgaria and other (mostly) neighbouring European countries. The immigrants, around three-quarters of whom were males of prime working age, rapidly displaced native workers in the agricultural, manufacturing and construction sectors, that is to say, the sectors which employ most workers.

In terms of official statistics, the result was an increase in the unemployment rate from 7.7 percent in 1990 to 11.7 percent in 1999. The burden of the increase in unemployment was mainly borne by young people (15-24). By 2000, the young male unemployment rate had reached 30 percent and the female rate 37.7 percent (Baldwin-Edwards 2002). Although the national unemployment rate has gone down slightly since 1999 (it stands at 10.7 percent today), the fact that the unemployment rate in Greece today is three percentage points higher than it was prior to the immigrant influx should put paid to the idea that immigration does not increase unemployment. Since 1991, Greece has seen a permanent increase in its unemployment rate.

Unfortunately, unemployment statistics are not idle academic exercises, but reflections of what is happening to real people. And what is happening is that more Greeks are vulnerable to unemployment than ever. Writes Theodoros Papadopoulos of the University of Bath, ‘the risk of unemployment has increased dramatically in recent years. In a study of social precariousness that covered the period 1996-2001, Greece was reported as the only country in Europe where the risk of unemployment had risen significantly. Indeed, the proportion of employees who had recently experienced unemployment rose substantially from 14.9 per cent in 1996 to 31.8 per cent in 2001; the highest increase among all EU countries.’ (Papadopoulos 2006)

As in most countries, official unemployment statistics dramatically understate the real extent of the problem. As Papadopoulos reminds us, ‘the levels of welfare support for the unemployed in Greece are extremely low by international standards [and] access to them is restricted to only small numbers of this group.’ Most unemployed young people therefore rely wholly on their families for their survival and go uncounted in the official statistics. Unemployment would also be higher were it not for the fact that, like young people in many other parts of the globe, young Greeks are now opting for longer years in education in the (usually vain) hope that this will result in a better job in the end. Mass immigration – and immigrants now comprise 10.3 percent of Greece’s population – has taken place, but mainly at the expense of the young, who have increased their dependency upon their parents.

But if young people have suffered most, mass immigration has also harmed employment prospects for women: ‘while male unemployment doubled during the 1990s, from 4 per cent in 1990 to almost 8 per cent in 1999 …, this amounted to less than half the increase in female unemployment. The latter rose much faster, from about 11 per cent in 1990 to an all-time high of 18 per cent in 1999, an increase of almost 8 percentage points. Although this figure had dropped to 15.5 per cent by 2001 … it remains, after Spain, the second highest figure in the EU.’ (Papadopoulos 2006)

Thanks to this adverse trend, the participation rate for working age women, which rose in the 1980s, is now among the lowest in Europe – 49 percent compared to a European average of 60 percent. If the country had not been inundated with immigrant workers after 1991, it is hard to believe that Greek women would not have continued increasing their participation rate to a level that was at least on a par with the European average.

In the Greek case, the neoliberal commentariat has drawn on some dubious arguments to discount the idea that immigration has disadvantaged native workers. The chief argument apologists for cheap labour capitalism use is that the immigrants only took up jobs that natives didn’t want anyway. ‘Immigrants in Greece work in a highly-segmented labour market, in temporary, part-time, heavy or dangerous occupations – the jobs that Greeks refuse to do, especially in construction, heavy industry and agriculture,’ writes Martin Baldwin-Edwards of the Mediterranean Migration Observatory in Athens. (Baldwin-Edwards 2004)

Kathy Tzilivakis, who writes on migration issues for the Athens News invariably takes the same line, even though she tends to restrict the subject to agriculture. ‘The inflow of immigrants in Greece (and across the EU) has not resulted in a rise of unemployment. Simply stated, migrant workers generally take jobs snubbed by the vast majority of Greeks,’ she claims. (Tzilivakis 2002)

As always, neoliberal propagandists cite experts from the migration lobby to back up their opinions. Tzilivakis quotes Danail Ezras of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), who argues, ‘We have to realise that immigration does not create unemployment. Migrants take work that Greeks don’t want. There is no Greek woman who now wants to clean homes, or Greeks willing to work in the agricultural sector or to paint homes. Greeks today are the contractors who hire migrants to do the manual labour. But someone still has to pick the olives.”‘ (Quoted in Tzilivakis 2002) Ditto for Charalambos Kasimis, professor of rural sociology at the Agricultural University of Athens: ‘Bottom line, young Greeks don’t want to have anything to do with farmwork.’ (Tzilivakis 2005) (NOTE)

But such arguments are based upon tendentious assumptions, not facts. No survey data of Greeks’ employment attitudes is ever invoked to substantiate such allegations, nor is any explanation given as to why it wasn’t until the country was flooded by immigrants that Greeks suddenly became much very choosy about the kinds of employments they would accept.

Since there were no labour shortages in the agricultural, manufacturing and construction sectors before 1991, there is no reason to assume that Greeks were deserting those employments. The decline in native participation rates is in fact a product of the post-1991 period of mass immigration, not a phenomenon that preceded it and therefore made mass immigration a practical necessity. Neoliberal spin doctors like Baldwin-Edwards and Ezras seem to be trying to turn history on its head, presenting a result (declining Greek participation rates) as a cause in order to discredit popular dissatisfaction with the result. It’s a ‘blame the victim’ strategy.

Let’s look specifically at the case of agriculture, which in terms of the number of people employed remains even today the largest sector of the Greek economy. In 1991, the bulk of agricultural labour, which is now apparently provided by immigrants, was performed by Greeks – 873,000 of them. The equivalent figure has subsequently fallen to 623,819 (2002). To account for this decline (of about a quarter of a million) the experts are asking us to believe that, around 1991, Greeks suddenly began looking down their noses at agricultural employment.

If we examine the statistics, though, we find that the fall was largely due to the decrease in the female participation rate, which fell from 26.4 percent in 1992 to 17.86 percent ten years later (Chletsos 2003) But rather than positing a sudden mutation in the character of Greek females around 1991, it would be more rational to conclude that the immigrants who arrived in the country after 1991 displaced female workers.

BELOW: Migrant workers picking watermelons. It is not hard to see why farmers would have preferred immigrant males like those shown in the photo to native females: they would not only have been cheaper but, in most cases, stronger and lacking domestic obligations that would restrict their working hours.

Whether Greek females suddenly became too snobbish to do farmwork around 1991, I have no way of knowing, but the Greek case presents abundant evidence against the theory that immigrants only take jobs that natives are unwilling to accept. The immigrants may have started out mainly in agriculture, but they rapidly penetrated every sector of the Greek economy; today, they are conspicuously absent only from sectors like the media and government in which high level ability in the Greek language is required. Baldwin-Edwards acknowledges in an article on Albanian workers in the city of Thessaloniki that immigrants work in a great variety of occupations. The same goes for Kasimis, who recently reported that ‘Immigrants are mainly employed in construction (24.5 percent), “other services,” meaning mostly domestic work (20.5 percent), agriculture (17.5 percent), and “commerce, hotels, and restaurants” (15.7 percent)’ (Kasimis & Kassimi 2004) Yet this finding has not prompted Baldwin-Edwards, Kasimis or any of the other major commentators on the country’s unemployment problem to revise their views on the alleged lack of competition between natives and immigrants over jobs.

BELOW: Martin Baldwin-Edwards, a proponent of the facile ‘job snob’ theory of unemployment. Even though his own research shows that immigrants are employed in every major sector of the Greek economy, he still peddles the theory that migrants only take up jobs that Greeks would refuse. (Given that migrants now make up a substantial proportion of the employment in every sector, Baldwin-Edwards would seem to be suggesting that during the 1990s Greeks suddenly decided that they didn’t want to work at all.)

But not only do immigrants work in every major sector of the Greek economy, they are significantly overrepresented in every one. Since the figures Kasimis cites are official statistics that do not count illegal workers, they dramatically understate the reality. The percentage of immigrants working in agriculture, for example, is very much higher than 17.5 percent. (Most commentators acknowledge that immigrants comprise a majority of the agricultural workforce today.) Since Greece, in 1991, was not suffering from labour shortages in any sector, it seems no point denying that most of the jobs occupied by immigrants today would otherwise be occupied by Greeks.

Other negative consequences of mass immigration include 1) a doubling in ‘self-employment’; 2) the second-highest rate of long-term unemployment in the European Union and 3) the significant expansion of the underground economy. The latter is a particular concern, as it has grown to constitute probably 35 percent of the economy. This is so large that it seriously undermines the development of the legal employment sector, thereby compounding the problems faced by young Greeks and women.

In Greece, as in every country that has suffered the curse of mass immigration in recent decades, the subject of its generally negative effects have been circumvented by means of tendentious arguments designed to reinforce the illusion that what is good for the employer class is good for everyone. While most writers have fallen back on the ‘job snob’ theory, even a writer who does not invoke it at all – Theodoros Papadopoulos – gives immigration a wide berth: ‘Overall, unemployment in Greece increased dramatically during the 1990s and continues at very high levels,’ he avers. ‘This is mainly the result of the intensification of economic restructuring, the economic austerity measures that accompanied Greece’s effort to join the EMU and the changes in the structure of the Greek labour force.’ (Papadopoulos 2006) Even if he uses the word ‘changes’ as a timid allusion to immigrants, it seems obvious to me that no commentator on the issue of unemployment can have any credibility who does not address the obvious causal relationship between rising unemployment and the large-scale influx of mostly able-bodied workers in precisely the same period.

My point, of course, is not that immigrants were necessarily responsible for the increase in Greek unemployment during the 1990s in its entirety, but that there is no reason to think that, absent the mass immigration of that era, employment trends would not have been broadly favourable. As for the spectre of ‘restructuring,’ this term partly describes a phenomenon by which capitalism is able to take advantage of increasingly abundant cheap labour. If there weren’t so many immigrants, there wouldn’t be as much ‘restructuring’ – and employers would have to engage in practices such as collective bargaining (which they are usually free to repudiate now) in order to keep their businesses running smoothly. Can it really be all that hard for the left to figure out that large-scale immigration is just as much of a factor in the erosion of employment opportunities in the last 30-odd years as the fetish for downsizing?

NOTE: Examples of lazy authors relying on the prejudiced ‘job snob’ theory could be multiplied indefinitely, e.g., Maria Siadima, who insists that ‘young people in Greece are very unwilling to take up jobs that have low prestige and are underpaid, preferring to be supported by their families.’ Such writers seem to me to be pandering to the pro-immigration bias of their peers and institutions rather more than they are interested in representing the situation accurately.