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As Many As 40 Migrant Workers Dead In Building Olympic Site

by Sanjay Suri

Olympics Mean Extra Pressure On Sweatshop Workers

(IPS) ATHENS -- A group of non-white laborers is busy planting shrubs by the side of the main Olympics stadium in Athens. The Greek contractor overseeing them is a man in a hurry.

One group of laborers is taking the little shrubs and sticking them in. Another is laying a network of black pipes to keep them watered under the burning August sun. Within hours the land to the side of a road bridge has been 'landscaped', and yet another stretch of land has become 'green.'

The soil does not look like it can host the plants very long. But the first aim is to keep them that way until Aug. 29 when the Olympics end.

A conversation with one of the workers who appeared to be a Pakistani turned out to be very brief. "It is very hot and it's a lot of work but I'm not complaining," he told IPS. "I am used to heat, so that is okay. But I have not stopped working. Hardly time to sleep, and the contractor brings us back again."

The man overseeing the work put an end to more talk. The worker was sent back to the planting. Others were stopped from any further conversations.

Contractors seem to have their reason for silencing migrant workers. Fourteen workers have died at construction sites for Olympics projects and more than 100 have been injured, according to official records. The Greek Construction Workers Union says the total could be as high as 40 dead. One person had died in the construction projects for the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The construction workers union has pointed also to other difficulties. It says that about 30,000 workers were employed on the Olympics projects, and more than half were non-Greek. Many of the workers employed had no proper work permits, it says. They were used in the frantic efforts to get the work completed on time.

Many of the workers have been paid less than what Greek workers would expect, the union says. And they have had to work long hours a day in unsafe conditions at rates below the minimum wage.

"Men are forced to work long shifts, up to 14 hours a day, in very hot temperatures and under constant pressure to complete the work in time," George Theodorou, general secretary of the union, said in a statement. "Most men have no hard hats or safety boots, and if they complain they are sacked." When contacted by IPS, Theodorou declined to make any further comment.

The Greek government has been anxious to keep the lid on workers issues around the Olympics projects. The few who had spoken up in recent days have now gone silent on the subject.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions had launched a 'Play Fair' campaign ahead of the Olympics along with Oxfam and the Clean Clothes Campaign to highlight the plight of workers around the world making clothes and other products for the Olympics. But no such campaign has sought to highlight the conditions of workers engaged in the Olympics construction projects.

The plight of migrant workers in Greece has only been heightened by the Olympics undertakings. About 10 to 25 percent of the work force in Greece is migrant in its origins, going by varying estimates. The plight of these workers has been cause for alarm, even though it has not been taken up widely.

Anna Karamanou, former member of the European Parliament, had told a meeting she organized that Greeks are more xenophobic than other Europeans. "We must also understand that diversity is a treasure and not a drag for a society," she told the conference.

A public opinion survey conducted by the National Center for Social Research found that two in three Greeks blamed immigrants for the country's high unemployment. A group calling itself the Hellenic Front has been leading a strong right-wing campaign against immigrant workers.

But large numbers of migrant workers continued to be denied basic rights, activists say. Co-founder of the Greek Migrants Forum Moavias Ahmet told the conference at the European parliament: "There are too many delays, and staff at the municipalities are poorly informed or just don't want to follow procedure and migrants living in Greece legally for as many as 30 years are being treated the same as those who have only just come here."

The minimum wage in Greece is about 30 Euros (36 dollars) a day, but union leaders in Greece have said that many migrant workers are getting less than that given the hours they are putting in. Some are said by union leaders to have been paid on average just about two Euros an hour, a fraction of what Greek workers are normally paid.

Few workers have complained because that is still more than they would earn in their country of origin. Also, many work only on a temporary basis, even if they have been working a long time, and complaining can threaten their jobs.

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Albion Monitor August 10, 2004 (

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