Bos/Hrv/SrpRomânăБългарскиShqipМакедонскиελληνικά 04 Dec 14

Macedonians Migrate South for Illegal Tourism Work

What were once student summer jobs in Greece have become a way to earn a living.

Marija Mitevska Skiathos, Mykonos and Skopje

The Greek island of Skiathos

Photo: Marija Mitevska

For the fifth long summer in a row, the small Greek island of Skiathos is Aleksandar’s second home. It would be a dream destination for many young men. The sun shines brightly and the party never ends. People are always smiling and every problem seems minor.

But Aleksandar did not come to enjoy the beauty of the island. He came to profit from it. His 'summer job' at a car hire company is the way he provides for his wife and child, who has not yet turned two, for the entire year. The price he pays is not seeing them for months on end.

“It’s unbearable to be separated from the family, especially from my daughter, who's being raised without her father,” he says sadly, standing in front of the car rental office in a narrow street in the island’s main town, also called Skiathos.

Aleksandar, 30, is one of many Macedonians who leave their home country behind to work illegally in the Greek tourist industry from May to October. (Like all Macedonians quoted only by their first name in this story, he has been given a pseudonym to protect his identity because he works illegally.)

These jobs used to be the domain of students and other young people looking to have fun by the sea and earn some cash. But now many others head south for summer work too.

Macedonia’s official statistics explain why. The unemployment rate is around 28 per cent, among the highest in Europe.

The average net monthly salary is around 340 euros. About 270,000 people, almost half of all those receiving a salary, earn less than 200 euros per month.

Magnet for tourists and workers

Macedonians make up just a fraction of the foreign labour force that helps support Greece’s tourist industry, a sector that has remained healthy in the midst of the country's deep economic crisis.

Nestled in the Aegean Sea, the small island of Skiathos fills up every summer with tourists attracted by dozens of beaches, a verdant landscape and picturesque streets of white-walled houses with blue shutters. The island was the setting for some scenes in the Hollywood musical Mamma Mia!

Tourist cafés on Skiathos

Photo: Marija Mitevska

More than 119,000 foreign visitors landed on Skiathos by plane alone during the summer of last year, joined by countless others who arrived by ferry. On an island with a regular population of around 6,000, there is high demand for extra workers to help out during the tourist season.

Aleksandar has worked at the same car rental firm every year since he first came to Skiathos. He spends between 10 and 12 hours a day there, with no day off in peak season between June and August. He earns 800 euros a month and has to pay his own living expenses, including accommodation.

His salary is somewhat more than the official minimum wage in Greece of 683 euros - although that is meant to be paid for a 40-hour week. Aleksandar works almost twice as many hours.

But his pay packet is still far better than anything he could get at home.

“I can only dream of earning that much money in Macedonia,” Aleksandar says.

Aleksandar managed to find work in his home city of Skopje only once in the past few years, earning just 170 euros a month at a small company.

“I feel sorry for all the Macedonians who work in Greece and can’t get benefits”

- 'Darko', a hotel receptionist from Macedonia who has a Bulgarian passport.

Another Macedonian from Skopje, 32-year-old Igor, also works in Skiathos at a car rental firm. This is his seventh year in a row working illegally on the island.

Like many other Macedonians in the Greek tourist industry, Igor and Aleksandar blame their illegal status on poor relations between Athens and Skopje, which are rooted in a decades-old dispute over the use of the name Macedonia.

They believe their employers would not be able to get a work permit for them because the Greek state discriminates against Macedonians.

“It’s not fair,” Igor says angrily, sitting with friends after work.

Experts in Greek labour law, however, say they do not believe Macedonian workers are being singled out when it comes to their employment status.

Macedonians are working illegally in the tourist industry because, they say, getting a work permit for any worker from outside the European Union is such a long, bureaucratic process that employers generally do not even attempt it.

But it is not hard to see why Macedonian workers believe they are being discriminated against.

Long-term tensions

Greece and Macedonia have been at loggerheads ever since the latter voted to leave Yugoslavia in 1991. As a region of northern Greece is called Macedonia, Athens argues that Skopje’s use of the name implies a claim on its territory.

Greeks are also angry that Skopje lays claim to figures such as Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, historically considered part of Greek culture.

The dispute reached its height in 2008 when Greece effectively blocked Macedonian membership of NATO. Greece has also said Macedonia cannot join the EU until the issue has been resolved.

Macedonians who travel to Greece encounter practical consequences of this standoff. Greek border police scan Macedonians' passports but do not stamp them, as the documents are not officially recognised by Athens. Instead, the police stamp a form with the passport holder’s personal details.

Ordinary Macedonians also experience first hand how sensitive Greeks can be about the name Macedonia and the Macedonian language.

“We were forbidden from speaking in our language in front of our manager and told we should say we come from Skopje, not Macedonia,” says Elena, a 24-year-old from the small town Makedonski Brod, recalling her first day as a disco promoter on the island of Mykonos.

“Once the manager heard us talking in Macedonian. He was very angry and started yelling at us. We’ve been careful since then," she says, sitting in a beach cafe on the island one day in June.

But the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) says Macedonians are in the same legal position as any other non-EU workers. And experts say they have seen no evidence that the broader tensions between Athens and Skopje are the reason Macedonians end up working illegally in the tourist sector.

"Most foreign workers work illegally in Greece... because it's difficult to get a work permit," says Costas Papadimitriou, an associate professor of law at the University of Athens.

Under the official system, Papadimitriou explains, an employer must formally invite a worker to take up employment and file an application for a work permit with the Ministry of the Interior - a process that can drag on for months.

"Many employers don't... want to follow it because it's bureaucratic. So they prefer to employ them (non-EU workers) illegally," he says.

Zoran Kocovski, the owner of Kouzon, a Macedonian recruitment agency for short-term employment abroad, says it was once relatively easy for Macedonians to work legally in Greece.

But after Greece's economic crisis began in 2010, he says, the authorities made it harder to obtain permits and encouraged Greeks to take jobs once done by foreigners.

The Greek island of Mykonos

Photo: Marija Mitevska

Kocovski says the two governments could strike a deal to legalise Macedonians working in Greece even without resolving their larger differences.

“Regardless of the name dispute, Macedonian authorities could sign a bilateral agreement on workforce migration with Greece,” he says.

Bulgarian passport is big bonus

In the absence of such an agreement, Macedonians look on with envy at compatriots who have acquired European Union passports.

Darko, a 41-year-old from Skopje who works at the reception desk of a five-star hotel, worked illegally on Skiathos for three years. But things changed for him after he got a Bulgarian passport.

In recent years, Macedonians have been able to get Bulgarian passports relatively easily by claiming Bulgarian ancestry. But many Macedonians regard this option as unpatriotic, even though it would give them EU citizenship.

Now everything is provided for Darko during the five months or more that he works on Skiathos every year - an apartment, social and health insurance, and a higher wage than seasonal workers with Macedonian passports. He works eight hours a day and earns 1,400 euros per month.

“I feel sorry for all the Macedonians who work in Greece and can’t get benefits,” Darko says.

As a worker from an EU country, Darko enjoys other advantages even after the summer is over. If he has worked more than a certain number of days, he receives unemployment benefit for the rest of the year.

Agencies arrange jobs

In the past few years, adverts for jobs in Greece have become increasingly common on Macedonian websites and on social networks. They offer positions for waiters, room maids and kitchen workers, among others. Salaries range from 600 to 1,000 euros and may include meals and accommodation.

The adverts are placed by both Macedonian and Greek agencies. The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network called some of these agencies to ask for more information. They asked for a CV and said employers would conduct an interview via Skype if a suitable job became available.

“When you get a job, you should travel as far as Athens, where an employee of the Greek partner agency will be waiting for you and will organise the trip to the final destination,” says one Macedonian woman offering jobs in Greece.

Agencies take a "service fee" of up to 250 euros from employees who get a job through them.

They guarantee work for up to three months, as this is the maximum amount of time that Macedonians are legally allowed to stay in Greece as tourists.

“If any worker wants to stay longer, it's up to them. The employers want you to stay and you will not have any problems from them,” the woman adds.

Marija, a 32-year-old mother of two from Skopje, worked for two summers as a maid on the island of Kos, leaving her children with their father. She found the job through a Macedonian agency, paying 100 euros for the service.

"They promise you the best conditions, and you end up cleaning 25 rooms per day, working at least 12 hours," she says.

This year she arranged to work on the island of Skopelos through a Greek agency. The day before she was supposed to leave Skopje, the job offer was withdrawn.

"They wanted more money, because there were a lot of people interested in the job," she says.

Several employers on Skiathos declined to talk about hiring Macedonian workers. But Kusios Christos, who owns a restaurant, hotel and supermarket, says businesses don't just hire illegal foreign workers to keep costs down. Holiday spots simply need all the help they can get in high season, he says.

“Tourist destinations can always benefit from an extra hand,” he says, sitting in his restaurant, which has its own swimming pool and tennis court.

Christos, who has been in business for more than 20 years, jokes that he was responsible for so many Macedonians working on the island as he lived in Skopje for a while and encouraged people to come to Skiathos.

Christos says he has hired Macedonians in the past, when the penalties for employing illegal workers were relatively mild. But, he says, the stakes are now too high. Macedonians still work in his restaurant, but only those with passports from EU member states, usually Bulgaria.

“The Greek law for seasonal workers is very strict for those coming from outside the EU to work in Greece and this does not apply only to Macedonians, but also to all the rest,” says Christos, chatting in fluent Macedonian.

Greek employers risk high fines if they are caught employing someone illegally. The workers themselves risk the possibility of a fine, detention and deportation.

Heading home

For the Macedonian seasonal workers, however, the risks are worth taking.

They know they earn far more than they could at home. While they work long hours without the rights and benefits enjoyed by Greeks and other EU citizens, their conditions are still far better than those faced by other migrants in Greece, such as those working in agriculture.

The Macedonian workers enter Greece as tourists but then stay longer than the 90-day limit allowed under EU rules. This means they face one more risk when they head home - crossing the border illegally, which costs up to 300 euros to arrange.

A 34-year-old man from Skopje, who has worked for eight years as a DJ on Skiathos, says that one year he had an arrangement with a retired police officer to help him cross the border. But the man’s friends in the border police were not on duty that day to wave him through so they had to find another solution.

“We climbed up the mountain near the Macedonian border... I was with a Macedonian girl. We thought we were going to cross the border in a car. But the man who was organising things came with a tractor. That was our vehicle,” he says.

“We went over the mountain while it was raining - wet but happy to be back in our home country,” he says.

Another time, he says, he was hidden in a truck with three friends. Once he crossed the border on foot without being observed by the border police.

Another Skopje man, Zoran, who has spent nine summers working at a disco on Mykonos, says he once crossed the border hidden in the boot of a car with two other people. Each of them paid 250 euros.

“A girl who was with me in the boot began to panic and wanted to get out of the car while we were crossing the border. I had to calm her down. The boot was so small for the three of us, and there wasn’t enough air. Luckily there were no queues at the border and we passed straight through,” he says.


Aleksandar, the car rental office worker, has previously crossed the border on foot and hidden in a truck. This year may require a different method. But this will not bother him. He will just be happy to be returning to his family at last.

“I’ll be home for my daughter’s birthday and I’ll make up for the lost time somehow,” Aleksandar says.

But the following May, he will pack his bags again and head back to Skiathos.

 

Marija Mitevska is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe’s Macedonian language service. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Several employers on Skiathos declined to talk about hiring Macedonian workers. But Kusios Christos, who owns a restaurant, hotel and supermarket, says businesses don't just hire illegal foreign workers to keep costs down. Holiday spots simply need all the help they can get in high season, he says.

 

“Tourist destinations can always benefit from an extra hand,” he says, sitting in his restaurant, which has its own swimming pool and tennis court.

 

Christos, who has been in business for more than 20 years, jokes that he was responsible for so many Macedonians working on the island as he lived in Skopje for a while and encouraged people to come to Skiathos.

 

Christos says he has hired Macedonians in the past, when the penalties for employing illegal workers were relatively mild. But, he says, the stakes are now too high. Macedonians still work in his restaurant, but only those with passports from EU member states, usually Bulgaria.

 

“The Greek law for seasonal workers is very strict for those coming from outside the EU to work in Greece and this does not apply only to Macedonians, but also to all the rest,” says Christos, chatting in fluent Macedonian.

 

Greek employers risk high finesif they are caught employing someone illegally. The workers themselves risk the possibility of a fine, detention and deportation.

 

Heading home

 

For the Macedonian seasonal workers, however, the risks are worth taking.

 

They know they earn far more than they could at home. While they work long hours without the rights and benefits enjoyed by Greeks and other EU citizens, their conditions are still far better than those faced by other migrants in Greece, such as those working in agriculture.

 

The Macedonian workers enter Greece as tourists but then stay longer than the 90-day limit allowed under EU rules. This means they face one more risk when they head home - crossing the border illegally, which costs up to 300 euros to arrange.

 

A 34-year-old man from Skopje, who has worked for eight years as a DJ on Skiathos, says that one year he had an arrangement with a retired police officer to help him cross the border. But the man’s friends in the border police were not on duty that day to wave him through so they had to find another solution.

 

“We climbed up the mountain near the Macedonian border... I was with a Macedonian girl. We thought we were going to cross the border in a car. But the man who was organising things came with a tractor. That was our vehicle,” he says.

 

“We went over the mountain while it was raining - wet but happy to be back in our home country,” he says.

 

Another time, he says, he was hidden in a truck with three friends. Once he crossed the border on foot without being observed by the border police.

 

Another Skopje man, Zoran, who has spent nine summers working at a disco on Mykonos, says he once crossed the border hidden in the boot of a car with two other people. Each of them paid 250 euros.

 

“A girl who was with me in the boot began to panic and wanted to get out of the car while we were crossing the border. I had to calm her down. The boot was so small for the three of us, and there wasn’t enough air. Luckily there were no queues at the border and we passed straight through,” he says.

Aleksandar, the car rental office worker, has previously crossed the border on foot and hidden in a truck. This year may require a different method. But this will not bother him. He will just be happy to be returning to his family at last.

 

“I’ll be home for my daughter’s birthday and I’ll make up for the lost time somehow,” Aleksandar says.

 

But the following May, he will pack his bags again and head back to Skiathos.

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