E.g., 10/03/2023
E.g., 10/03/2023
Migrants in the Rural Economies of Greece and Southern Europe

Migrants in the Rural Economies of Greece and Southern Europe

In the last 15 years, migration flows to Southern Europe have increased considerably. The end result has been the evololvement of all Southern European countries from senders of migrants to migrant receivers and permanent immigrant destinations.

An important aspect of this process is connected to the agricultural sector and the rural regions. In fact, half of the agriculturally employed population and two-thirds of the farm holdings of the European Union (EU) are concentrated in Southern Europe.

These labor-intensive regional economies have been fueled by migrants arriving from the Balkans, Africa, and even Asia. Evidence from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece shows a rapid increase in migrant employment in agriculture and rural regions during the past 15 years (see sidebar). At the same time, fewer natives are working as wage laborers in agriculture in all of these countries.

Such rapid changes have implications for the immigration policies and economies of each Southern European country. Focusing on one country's experience is helpful in understanding the new role of migrants. Greece's status as a receiver of large migrant flows, as well as its important position in Southern Europe's agricultural sector, makes it a good candidate for such an examination.

First, we will look at the context for employing migrant workers in agriculture, then we will explore the Greek case in depth, including the way native rural Greeks view migrant workers.

Reasons for Labor Migration to Rural Areas

The study of migration to rural areas has a long tradition in the U.S., but not in Europe. Such studies, where they have been undertaken in Europe, have tended to concentrate on the implications of a rural exodus from sending societies rather than on rural areas as receivers of migrants.

A report in 2000 from the EU's Social and Economic Committee summarizes the causes and asks for further research on the issue. More specifically, the committee cited numerous reasons for the expanding employment of migrant workers in agriculture. These include:

  • the pool of native workers has shrunk as rural-area populations have declined;
  • the agriculture industry has restructured its crop mix and introduced new techniques and technology;
  • native workers are not attracted to seasonal employment in agriculture and do not always meet the conditions in terms of motivation, skills, and mobility; more importantly, most are not willing to accept low wages and bad working conditions;
  • unemployed native workers could lose or see their unemployment benefits reduced if they take low-paying agricultural work, which does not provide the security of full-time employment;
  • the temporary employment of migrants makes bargaining with them easier than with native workers; and
  • employers can more easily avoid making social security payments when they employ migrant workers.
Migrant Workers in Agriculture in Italy, Portugal, and Spain
Migrants are employed in pig and cattle farming, vineyards, and fruit and vegetable production.
  • In 2000, 13 percent of migrants, compared to five percent of natives, worked in agriculture.
  • Migrants make up 60 percent of agriculture's seasonal labor force.
  • Two-thirds of migrant workers in agriculture are from Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania. Indians and Africans complete the picture.
Migrants are employed in strawberry, citrus fruit, flower, greenhouse, and pig farm production.
  • 13 percent of applications for regularization in 2001 came from migrants holding agricultural jobs.
  • 17 percent of all migrants lived in areas with a population below 10,000 according to the 2001 census.
  • The majority of migrants in agriculture were, until recently, from North Africa. They are gradually being replaced by Romanians and Bulgarians.
Migrants are employed in pig farms, olive trees, and fruit and vegetable production.
  • Approximately five percent of non-EU work contracts in 2001 were in agriculture. A significant percentage of those were concentrated in the regions of Alentejo, Ribatejo, and Oeste.
  • One-fifth of work permits issued in 2004 were related to agriculture.
  • The majority of new migrants in agriculture originate from Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, and Russia, replacing migrants from former Portuguese-speaking African (PALOP) countries and from other parts of Africa.

In Southern Europe, these changes are part of wider economic and societal developments over the past 25 years as Southern European countries have been integrated into the EU and as the economic and social distance between Southern and Northern Europe has narrowed.

Improving living standards, higher levels of education among young people (supported in their endeavours by the family), the increasing number of women who work, and the shift from manufacturing to service-based economies have led to a decrease in the native population's need for (seasonal) work away from home and to a general unwillingness to hold low-status and low-income jobs.

The expansion of the economy's tertiary sector — specific to Southern European countries and based on tourism, agriculture, fisheries, and construction — has brought about a demand for flexible labor power, independent of trade union practices and legislation.

In addition, the fluid nature of southern economies, which are based on tourism, commerce, and shipping, often have facilitated the legal entry of migrants as tourists and visitors who remain illegally upon their visas' expiration. Extended coastlines and easily crossed borders also have helped migrants' entry, as have weak migration controls.

Rural areas themselves have become "multifunctional." Non-agricultural activities like tourism and housing construction have developed, urban dwellers have returned to their land of origin, and new consumption patterns connected to leisure and recreation have grown. The native-born population has not been able to meet the labor demands of this multifunctional environment.

Policy Changes Affecting Agriculture

The agricultural sector's response to national and international developments also affects migration patterns. The most recent such development that affects all EU countries is the 2003 introduction of reforms to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The need for CAP reform was pushed to the forefront by the EU's May 2004 enlargement to include 10 new Member States. The EU's goal was to include the new Member States while simultaneously holding steady EU financial support to agriculture through 2013.

World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations for a new agreement on agriculture, which have implied adjustments to the level of agricultural supports, are also a concern. Added to these factors have been pressures from European citizens who want safe food production and protection of the environment.

With the old CAP benefits now in question, large parts of the agricultural sector feel threatened not only by cheap imports, but also by innovative and technology-powered competitive agriculture. The pressures for technological modernization and the restructuring of agriculture towards both capital and labor-intensive crops have incited, on the one hand, a further exodus of farm family labor to off-farm employment and greater seasonal demand for labor on the other.

The Greek Case

According to the latest census, the population of Greece increased from 10,259,900 in 1991 to 10,964,020 in 2001. This increase can be almost exclusively attributed to immigration in the past decade. The census shows that the foreign population of Greece in 2001 was 762,191, making up approximately seven percent of the total population.

It is estimated that the real number of immigrants is higher; many analysts believe that migrants make up as much as 10 percent of the population because unauthorized immigrants were not included in the census.

Almost two-thirds of the foreign population are from Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. Of these, Albania accounts for 57.5 percent of the total, with second-place Bulgaria at 4.6 percent. Common borders with both of these countries have facilitated migration.

Most of the jobs migrants undertake are non-skilled, manual work well below their education and qualifications. Although they are mainly employed in construction (24.5 percent), about 17.5 percent work in agriculture. The agricultural workers, who are mostly from Albania, entered the country illegally in the 1990s following the collapse of the communist regime. Most of them were regularized in the past four years under the provisions of Act 2910/2001, otherwise referred to as Greece's second regularization program.

In comparison, Greek agriculture today employs today almost 16 percent of the economically active, native population. Agriculture composes approximately eight percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Immigrant wage labor, which has grown extensively in the past decade, now accounts for almost 20 percent of the total labor expended in the agricultural sector.

In intensive cultivation, such as sultana grapes, asparagus, tobacco, greenhouse produce and flower production, and the fruit industry in general, migrants' labor contribution is almost one-third of the total labor expended. Migrants have nearly become the exclusive contributors of wage labor in Greek agriculture.

Migrants in Rural Greece: Research Findings

Research suggests that migrant workers have addressed structural developments in rural Greece, including longstanding labor shortages due to emigration and changes in the rural economy, the younger generation's increasing rejection of rural life and jobs, and the native rural population's growing tendency to obtain non-agricultural employment.

Recently conducted quantitative and qualitative research, which continues in a follow-up study, in three rural areas of Greece revealed that more than half of the total number of rural households and two-thirds of the farm households employed migrant labor (see map and sidebar for research details).

Map of Greece: The Three Paradigmatic Rural Regions

The contributions of migrant labor varied by rural region. For example, in the area where agriculture predominated, most migrants worked in agricultural production and processing. In the multifunctional rural area, migrants worked in all sectors.

Across the regions studied, migrants supported both the survival and the expansion of farms. However, the use of migrant labor was, in economic terms, more significant for the larger farms. As the size of the farm increased, so did the amount of migrant labor.

The use of migrant labor did not halt the modernization or technological development of Greek agriculture. Expected competition between farm modernization, technological development, and the employment of migrant labor failed to materialize.

Migrant labor complemented family labor by filling seasonal deficits and meeting increasing demands on both agriculture and rural regions in general. However, migrant labor also facilitated the partial withdrawal of family labor and the adoption of new family employment strategies.

The availability of migrant labor affected the family division of labor on and off the farm. Farm operators reduced their workload and devoted more time to farm organization and management; spouses either reduced their work or returned exclusively to housework while other members of the family sought employment outside agriculture.

Research Details and Methodology
Research Details
Three paradigmatic rural regions, all more or less equal in population size (4,000 households), were studied in the context of the author's research between 2000 and 2002. A follow-up study is being carried out in the same regions between 2004 and 2006 (see map). These regions are:
  1. a "marginal/mountainous" region near the Albanian border in the prefecture of Ioannina, which is defined by small-scale agriculture and extensive livestock production.
  2. a "dynamic" region in coastal Peloponnese in the prefecture of Corinthia, which is defined by labor-intensive agriculture and lowland second-home development.
  3. a "multifunctional" region on the island of Crete in the prefecture of Chania, which is typical of island areas combining agriculture and small-scale tourism.
Three empirical studies in each region:
  1. a qualitative study through semi-structured interviews of 58 local/regional administrators and opinion leaders.
  2. a survey of a representative sample of 293 households aimed at the collection of information on the role of migrants and the implications of migrant employment for the operation of farms, family businesses, and the overall support of households. The same survey also registered the opinions and attitudes of local populations towards migrants and their evaluation of the prospects for the migrants' integration.
  3. a qualitative study of 65 migrants in the form of semi-structured interviews aimed at the documentation of the social, economic, and cultural experiences of the migrants, as well as their future plans.
In the ongoing follow-up study, the three regions are being revisited, and the qualitative research on local/regional administrators, opinion leaders, and the migrant population is being continued with the inclusion of new questions related to the regularization and the processes of migrant integration/exclusion.

Local Attitudes Towards Migrants

More than two-thirds of the population of rural areas widely acknowledged the positive implications of migrants' presence primarily because labor shortages were covered, labor costs fell, and consumption expanded. Older respondents and the farming population generally held more positive attitudes towards the migrants while non-farmers and the younger members of households held more negative opinions.

The research indicated that migrant workers were relatively more accepted and integrated in the less-developed rural regions than in the developed ones. This was related to the proportion of migrants in the total population of each region, their family status, and their job characteristics. For example, there seemed to be more acceptance of migrants living permanently in one region together with their families, as opposed to seasonal/irregular laborers traveling without families.

Migrants and the native population had largely overlapping opinions about the prospects for integration. Both populations believed that the prospects for integration were much better for migrants who lived in rural regions with their families. Integration strategies of these migrants were immediately related to the future of their children and more specifically related to successful education. For migrants with no family members in Greece, a longer time frame was considered necessary because their integration process was much slower.

Although native respondents considered Albanians the fastest integrating nationality, opinions about them were still negative, reflecting national stereotypes.


Migration to rural areas has been a rapidly developing phenomenon in the past two decades. Particularly in Southern Europe, where agriculture still holds an important position for both the economy and society, migrants play a crucial role in the development of the sector and the preservation of the social and economic cohesion of rural areas.

Research in Greece has shown that migrant labor has contributed positively in the past decade to the avoidance of an "impending" economic and social crisis in agriculture and country life by filling labor deficits and reducing labor costs. Migrants have also offered farm families opportunities to reallocate family labor.

However, most researchers and policymakers have paid little attention to this issue. A number of problems — the persisting demographic and structural problems of Southern European agriculture, the informality of rural labor markets, and the anticipated mobility of migrants out of rural areas as their social and economic expectations increase — could negatively affect the future of rural European societies.

In addition, these areas face severe international pressures connected with WTO negotiations, CAP reforms, and EU enlargement.

Prevailing policy instruments are predominantly based on production or factors of production, such as land and capital. New policies that consider the role of migrants will need to be developed at the national and EU levels.

This paper draws from the findings of a completed research project entitled "The Implications of the Settlement and Employment of Migrant Labor in Rural Greece" by Kasimis, Nitsiakos, Zacopoulou and Papadopoulos (2002) and the ongoing follow-up study "The Multifunctional Role of Migrants in Rural Greece and Rural Southern Europe" supported by the MacArthur Foundation (USA). Parts of this material are included in the forthcoming paper "The New Role of Migrants in the Rural Economies of Southern Europe" by C. Kasimis (2005).


The author would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (USA) for supporting the project "The Multifunctional Role of Migrants in Rural Greece and Rural Southern Europe" (2004-2006).


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