ATHENS, Greece (AP) — After months of pressing the strawberry plantation over pay, the Bangladeshi migrant laborers gathered in the field hoping that a deal was near. Instead, foremen peppered them with gunfire, wounding 28.
The bloodletting this week in Greece's southern strawberry fields shocked the nation and put the spotlight on the plight of the financial crisis' overlooked victims: hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, many undocumented, whose lot is becoming even tougher amid rising racist violence and dropping living standards.
After a two-day manhunt, Greek authorities on Friday arrested three suspects in the shootings, which drew strong condemnation from the government, political parties and labor unions. The men, aged 21, 27 and 39, face multiple charges of attempted murder.
"As long as the crisis worsens, barbaric acts will find an outlet," said Nikitas Kanakis, head of the Greek branch of the Doctors of the World medical aid group.
Police said the shootings near the village of Manolada followed an altercation between the Greek foremen and some 200 workers demanding six months' unpaid wages. When the foremen left the scene, the Bangladeshis began hoping that management was preparing to offer a solution. But the foremen returned with two shotguns and a handgun and opened fire — spraying pellets into torsos and limbs. A total of 28 people were sent to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries.
Md Khan Liton, one of the Bangladeshi protesters, described the terror of coming under gunfire.
"They fired at us as if we were animals," said Liton, who escaped unhurt. "We are peaceful people trying to make money to send home. We want to be paid."
There have been several cases of migrant laborers being abused in Manolada in recent years — including men being dragged behind cars or motorbikes. But none has been as bad as Wednesday's shootings.
"It was an unprecedented situation," said senior health official Panos Efstathiou. "You'd think there was a war on,"
Bangladeshi workers said tensions with the farm have festered for months. Mohammed Lendu Miha, who has worked at the plantation but was not present at the shooting, said his former employers had tried to pay him with a check that bounced, and threatened to kill him when he insisted on cash.
"They told me that if I didn't leave, they would burn me alive," he said. "I went to the police but got no help, they don't care."
The shootings drew calls on social media for a boycott on strawberries from Manolada. The area, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) southwest of Athens, produces most of the strawberries sold in Greece. It's an industry based on cheap labor by immigrant workers living in conditions the country's justice minister likened to those in America's south during the years of slavery.
Greece is the main gateway for immigrants from Asia and Africa trying to clandestinely enter the European Union. Most end up stuck there, amid Greece's worst financial crisis in decades, and up to a tenth of the formerly ethnically homogenous country's population is not native-born.
With Greek unemployment at 27 percent, migrants take what work they can get. Often they toil in fields that Greeks abandoned over the past decades of consumption-fueled affluence.
"We have roughly the same picture, with small variations, across the country," Kanakis said. "Foreign workers working uninsured with very low wages, who live in poor conditions. These are frightened people, without legal documents, who don't know the language."
On the island of Salamis last year, an Egyptian bakery worker was found badly beaten and chained to a tree after seeking back pay from his employer. The Greek bakery owner, who was arrested, claimed the victim had tried to steal money from him.
Migrant workers have for more than 20 years formed the backbone of Greece's agriculture, on wages well below the official minimum of 26 euros ($34).
"In the southern Peloponnese where I come from, if we didn't have foreign workers we wouldn't ever gather any olives," Kanakis said. "It would be very unlikely for Greeks to accept such living conditions. When you're paid 20 euros ($26) a day and are trying to save money to send home, obviously you'll live in the fields, not in a proper house."
In Manolada, many laborers live in tents or shacks, stifling in the summer and freezing in winter, without sanitation or adequate access to drinking water.
Kanakis accused local communities of hypocrisy, accepting the migrants' money in local shops but ignoring their plight, including lack of access to healthcare.
"The problem isn't so much the landowners — from whom I expect nothing better — or state agencies which may turn a blind eye," he said. "It's the local societies, where everyone knows what is happening but nobody talks."
The wave of illegal immigration in recent years, coupled with a spike in violent crime, has fueled anti-migrant sentiment propelling the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a party so far to the right that its website brims with Nazi literature and references. The party, currently Greece's third most popular — polling at about 10 percent — strenuously denies being neo-Nazi.
It also rejects broad allegations that it instigates attacks on migrants, although its supporters have been linked with such violence on several occasions.
Foreign workers in Greece are in a particularly parlous position, as those who have violated immigration laws are under constant threat of arrest and deportation if denounced to authorities. Even victims of racist attacks have been detained over alleged immigration violations, a practice condemned by international rights groups.
Many employers take advantage of the risk of detention to quell protests.
"The basic threat is: Don't talk much and perhaps we'll pay you sometime," Kanakis said.
Greece's public order minister, Nikos Dendias, on Friday pledged that the injured Bangladeshis would not be punished if found to have illegally entered Greece.
"None of the victims have been detained, nor will they be deported," he said during a visit to the Manolada area.