Friday, 18 April 2008

How migrants are fertilising a human and civil rights movement

IT IS popular to assume that as a homogenous society Greeks are callous towards the needs of non-Greeks living here. The bureaucratic problems immigrants face in securing residence permits, and Greece's appalling asylum record, usually claim the journalistic spotlight.

Yet the presence of migrants has acted as a catalyst for advocacy among Greeks to distinguish Greek ethnicity and nationality from four broad areas of rights: labour, citizenship, religious and student rights. This activity has emerged quietly and piecemeal, and gone largely unnoticed.

Last week, for instance, Left Coalition MP Fotis Kouvelis pointed out that under current laws European Union students have longer to finish a degree than third-country nationals. The distinction may have made sense before legal amendments in 2007 put an end to a Greek student's right to retake exams in perpetuity, resulting in enrolments lasting many decades. An unscrupulous migrant might easily have used academic leniency as a back door to residence (although such ingeniousness should surely qualify him as a Greek).

By removing nationality as a legitimate basis for such discrimination, Kouvelis is effectively promoting a higher right of equal opportunity in education. It is not only an eminently equitable proposal, but probably necessary if Greece aspires to export tertiary education.

Greeks are also advocating greater citizenship rights for non-Greeks. Our law recognises citizenship by blood, not place of birth. The Hellenic League for Human Rights last February suggested that that be changed. Its four main proposals include automatic citizenship for the grandchildren of immigrants and only perfunctory formalities for the children of immigrants with eight years of legal residence.

The league argues, correctly, that quite apart from the problem of stateless children being born in Greece, the current philosophy would recognise a citizen in a third-generation Greek-American who spoke not a word of Greek, but not in a Ghanaian who had never known any other country or school curriculum but the Greek. It is a fundamental separation of ethnicity from the political conferrance of citizenship, which was never an issue before mass migration to Greece.

Religion has been one of Greece's most marked areas of homogeny (98 percent of the population is Greek Orthodox), but its pervasiveness is being challenged. Last month a Greek lawyer won a case against the Athens Bar in the European Court of Human Rights.

The bar had forced him to declare that he was not of Greek Orthodox persuasion before allowing him to avoid the religious oath. The case was won on the technicality that the bar had no right to exact such a confession, but it effectively establishes the right to avoid a religious oath and it is only a question of time before that right is established as the default position for all secular institutions. Even the church may help in this direction under newly elected Archbishop Ieronymos, who is said to favour a separation of church and state.

The greatest area of rights advocacy by Greeks for non-Greek nationals, however, has been labour. The Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) has built a position that labour rights are universal and distinct from nationality.

For instance, when Pakistani fruit pickers in Marathon went on strike in 2002, GSEE supported their demands for 30 euros a day and 40 hours a week (they were working 12-hour days for as little as a euro an hour). GSEE has argued that its annual wage agreements should also apply to non-Greeks, and that they should also be fully enrolled in social security organisations.

Along with the civil servants' union, ADEDY, it has lobbied for the legalisation of all migrant workers as a means of offering them equal terms. When a Pasok government planned the country's first ever legalisation programme in 1997, unionists forced it to include Albanians and Bulgarians - the two most sizeable minorities - who were deliberately going to be left out.

GSEE dedicated an immigration secretariat to lobby the government to do more to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers and thus encouraging more illegal migration. It worked at the problem from the grassroots end as well, setting up an information centre to inform workers, including migrants, of their rights.

The unions have done all this as a means of limiting illegal immigration and evening the playing field with Greek workers, but also of securing the rights of all workers.

The Greek supreme court, Areios Pagos, took migrants' labour rights a step further. In a landmark ruling last November, it found in favour of two illegal Albanian immigrants who sued their employer for fair wages.

The precedent effectively means that employers of illegals must observe the General Collective Bargaining Agreement, under which employees are entitled to the monthly minimum salary of 657 euros and the right to overtime pay. As we report this week, the government has made it a priority to round up undocumented harvesters this summer (see article on page 14). Since the hiring of illegals carries a fine of up to 15,000 euros a head, while the law is being enforced (in the seasonal manner in which Greek law generally is) the risk to employers is high.

So not only is the right to fair treatment seen by the country's largest union umbrella organisations as equal for non-Greek and non-EU workers, but the law now upholds their right to equitable wages while punishing their employer for contracting them.

The result of these piecemeal actions is that Greeks are beginning to distinguish individual rights from nationality and ethnicity in a way that the relatively immigrant-free society of the 1980s never encouraged them to.

Credit can go to the European Union for anchoring Greece in international law; but much credit goes to conscientious Greek lawmakers, grassroots campaigns, honest unionists and judges, who have helped prove that justice can be blind. Their actions remind us that migrants have played a role in making Greece a better place.

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