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Bangladeshi fruit pickers shot at by Greek farmers win human rights case

March 31, 2017 ·  By Helena Smith for www.theguardian.com

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European court of human rights rules in favour of Bangladeshi migrants over 2013 attack and orders Greece to pay damages

Migrant workers at a strawberry plantation near the Greek village of Manolada, where scores of workers were shott by foremen in 2013. Photograph: Antonis Nikolopoulos/AP

Migrant workers at a strawberry plantation near the Greek village of Manolada, where scores of workers were shott by foremen in 2013. Photograph: Antonis Nikolopoulos/AP

The European court of human rights has issued a landmark judgment vindicating a group of migrant strawberry pickers who were shot at by employers for asking for their wages after months of unpaid labour.

Ruling in favour of the 42 Bangladeshis, the court ordered the Greek state to pay damages of up to €16,000 (£13,750) each for having “failed in its obligations to prevent the situation of human trafficking”. At €588,000 in total, the compensation award is among the largest ever made by the court.

“This is one of the most important judgments an international court has ever given for migrant workers,” Simon Cox, the British lawyer who represented the claimants, told the Guardian. “It is a trailblazer for Europe and not only brings justice for the workers in this case but will compel governments to protect migrants without papers against exploitation.”

From now on, he said, irregular workers would be safeguarded from employers using the threat of deportation for exploitation.

The Bangladeshis took the case to Europe’s highest human rights court after a Greek tribunal acquitted the farmers who had hired them of forced labour. Although two were convicted of dangerous bodily harm and handed jail sentences of up to 14 years and seven months, they were freed pending appeal. Politicians, unions and anti-racist groups had denounced the verdicts as a black day for justice.

On Thursday, the Strasbourg-based court ruled that while the strawberry pickers had voluntarily sought employment on the farm near the town of Manolada in the southern Peloponnese, their situation had become one of forced labour when their employers had refused to pay back wages under the threat of detention and deportation. The migrant workers lived in makeshift shacks without toilets or running water.

Fearing arrest, the Bangladeshis continued working but were shot at when they staged protests in April 2013 demanding to be paid. Many of the 30 injured in the attack suffered severe gunshot wounds. Four were critically injured, with one man spending three days in intensive care. Several were incapable of working for months.

“We are very pleased and excited by today’s judgment,” said Morsed Chowdury, the lead complainant. “We hope the Greek government will learn from our experiences and recognise our important role in the Greek economy.”

Human rights groups also welcomed the decision in a case that has shone a light on the awful conditions in which migrant workers are often kept in Greece. The Bangladeshis had argued their treatment violated the EU member state’s obligation to prevent forced labour and trafficking.

“Today’s judgment is an important vindication for them and their families and will hopefully help prevent future abuse,” said Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Europe and central Asia at Amnesty International. The migrant workers had been subjected to appalling conditions, she added.

Greece has three months by law to request the verdict be reviewed. The debt-stricken country, blighted by its worst economic crisis in living memory, is surviving on emergency bailout loans from international creditors with coffers near empty.

However, well-placed sources said it was highly unlikely that the leftist-led government of the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, would appeal against the judgment. The Syriza–dominated coalition has adopted a much more humane approach to migrant workers and refugees than its conservative predecessor, under which the shootings of the Bangladeshis and subsequent court case occurred.

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