Sunday, 26 September 2010
(The sea at Sigri)
Life goes on during the economic crisis. As in other places, businesses on Lesbos are closing down and I can’t be sure they will open again next year. I think it is easier to survive the crisis here than in a big city. Lots of businesses, like restaurants, are run by families from buildings they own, and most have a plot of land somewhere where they grow vegetables. But it is still a fact that even here people are poorer than they were.
There have been sceptical reactions to the ban on smoking in public places like bars and restaurants which came into force on September 1 for the third time. Of all Europeans Greeks smoke the most and they are not happy: first they take my money and then my cigarettes!
Greeks already have a big enough problem with the new tax system, which means everybody now has to pay up. Every business has to issue a receipt with every purchase — even petrol stations, where before the crisis they never heard of receipts.
Here in the north of the island reactions to the smoking ban are, as usual incredulous. Who will enforce it? In Molyvos you seldom see police, especially in winter when everybody eats (and smokes) indoors. And yet they have enough police to deal with a group hit hardest by the crisis: illegal workers, most of them from Albania.
Last week a special police team from Mytilini invaded some restaurants in Molyvos and if they found illegal workers, arrested the owners as well as the workers. Then they carted them off like cattle to prison in Mytilini. The workers will be thrown out of the country and, after a night in gaol, their employers will have to pay a hefty fine. For some it could be the end of their business. The Albanians will return home in to a country that strangely enough is less affected by the crisis than Greece.
When the communist regime in Albania – the poorest country of Europe – fell in 1991, large numbers left to look for work and a better life elsewhere, especially to Italy and Greece. When Italy closed its borders to them, Greece became their most popular destination and lots of them now live in here — some legal, others illegal. The ‘illegals’ are regularly expelled, but if they are sure of getting work, they find the paths that bring them back unseen over the mountains and are soon doing their jobs again.
Thanks to these people working abroad Albania has come out of a deep recession. As well as learning new skills in Greece they have done what workers in Greece used to do when they went away — sent back money home to keep their families alive. However, the money stream from Greece to Albania has been slowing down because more and more Albanians can now find work at home and the crisis in Greece has seen many of them returning. These are usually those who have lost jobs in Greece and are willing to try their luck in Albania. It remains to be seen whether they swell the numbers of unemployed or whether the arrival of skilled workers stimulates the economy.
For decades the economy in Greece profited from the cheap labour of these workers. Without foreign workers – as well as Albanians there are a lot of other east European nationalities here - there never would have been the Olympic Games in Athens and for the most part Greek agriculture depends on them; so it would not be good for Greece if they all left. It would bring on an even more serious crisis because Greeks have moved out of less skilled jobs and will not work for the poor wages they pay most Albanians.
So Greece is in a difficult position. At the same time the government is taking money out of Greek wallets and the economy is going into decline. Or could it be that this crisis will be the saviour that cleanses the economy from illegal work practices, from employees who do little work and people who pay no tax?? We will find the answer in the future.
On an island like Lesvos the crisis has less impact than in Athens. The fishermen still go out to the sea hoping for a big catch. The tourist season slowly comes to an end and some of the olive trees are so full of fruit you wonder who will harvest them in the coming winter.
(with thanks to Tony Barrell)
@ Smitaki 2010