Georgian Labour Migrants Flee from Eurozone Crisis


Government crisis, economy at the edge of default, no jobs, rallies and strikes almost every week: This is autumn 2011 in Greece.

This is the country where a large majority of Georgian job seekers used to migrate to. A lot of them have had to return today, as having once escaped unemployment in their own country, they were trapped by it again in another.

Data of the Georgian National Bank shows that Greece is in second place in terms of the amount of money transfers to Georgia (it comes after the Russian Federation). About 40 million USD were transferred from Greece during the first half of 2011. 

Labour migration to Greece started in the 90s. It was the first stream of Georgian labour migrants who escaped from the economic stagnation of the country and unemployment. Other popular destinations for job migrants from Georgia were Turkey and Russia.

Global research company Gallup estimated that the number of Georgians working illegally in Russia ranged from 333,000 to 1 million in 2006. About one in twelve Georgians (8%) told Gallup that someone in their household was working abroad temporarily -- and of those, 41% said that the person worked in Russia. In the same period MOSCOW deported several hundred Georgians and shut down a number of businesses run by Georgians in Russia. That increased the number of Georgian job migrants in Greece.

According to the country profile of International Organization of Migration, the number of Georgian migrants in Greece in 2007 was 13,791. Some of that first flow of legal migrants even have citizenship now, but this factor didn’t prevent them coming back after the crisis erupted.

Georgian society has historic relations with Greeks. Greeks settled in Western Georgia over the centuries. Today the Greek Diaspora in Georgia is estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 people down from about 100,000 in 1989. The community has dwindled due to the large wave of repatriation to Greece. Most of the Greeks fled Abkhazia during and after the 1992-1993 war.

Lela Sikharulidze, 26, left Athens several months ago with her husband and son who are citizens of Greece. The family had arranged its life well, the husband had a permanent job in a store house of Adidas. Her mother in law had been there for many years already. To cut it short Greece had become their second home, until the rallies erupted.

The labour market became like a battlefield in the country. Lela says that even the attitude of the natives was a little bit negative towards foreigners who got employment there.

Most of the Georgians working in Greece have kind of altruistic reasons, sending money back home monthly because they have parents or children here to support. With simple economic calculations, they try to spend less on the ground and help their families instead.  “I appeared to have more expenses than income, so I left,” recalls Lika, another ex-migrant in Greece, who used to work in Thessaloniki at a summer tavern. When the season ended, she had no hope of finding anything else so she had to return back three months ago.

This year has definitely been difficult for Greece. The country’s public sector spending has grown, while revenue has fallen, then economic activity slowed and unemployment rose up to 18.4 percent. This brought the fiscal situation to a critical margin.

The International Monetary Fund and Eurozone leaders made up their mind to allot the sixth tranche of 110 billion EUR, but first of all, the country must have met the conditions of the financial assistance. This assistance has another side, the people’s. They are against wage and pension reductions and the taxes growth which the new government says is inevitable. This circumstance has affected the life of Georgian migrants, almost proportionally, because their employers have started to avoid extra expenses.

Here are several examples: Labour migrants normally get their jobs in Athens at a special office for job seekers from Georgia and other countries. After paying 100-200 EUR (depending on the salary they will have) they find employment. Now due to the crisis, the tendency has changed. Since the families who hire domestic workers also have to pay, they try to use personal contacts instead. The families also bring elderly people together or two or three relatives are given to one person for care. This is how locals save money now. 

Tsitsino calls herself Copela in conversation. This word is for a domestic worker woman in Greek. She has been living and working illegally in Athens for six years already. “…when the crisis started my employers asked me to look after two elderly people of one family. As they are relatives the family decided to save the money. They paid me 800 EUR for one person, but now I get 900 EUR for two of them”.  The condition isn’t profitable at first glance, but the primary reason to stay for Tsitsino is the good relations she has with the family and also that there aren’t as many jobs in the country as there used to.

Although the situation is difficult for most Georgians there, some of them still feel comfortable in the ancient European country. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, 26, is a young Georgian doctorate degree researcher in Thessaloniki. The debt crisis of the Greek Government didn’t have a direct impact on him as he is an EU scholarship winner but he says that finding a job has become difficult for others in the town, on top of which the prices are getting higher.

He knows from direct observation that these circumstances have had a big impact on Georgian migrants. Still he feels optimistic and doesn’t think that he chose the wrong time to go to Greece to study. “The rallies sometimes make problems with public transport but it isn’t a permanent problem. In general I feel absolutely safe here. I think that the Greeks have preserved their old Hellenic spirit and I’m sure they will be able to change the situation into a positive one,” he hopes. 

Greece isn’t the only back runner by its economics in the Eurozone. Rome and Athens seem to not only have their past and history in common but present problems as well. Some Georgians from Greece also decided to move to Italy but almost simultaneously with Greece, Italy had to change its cabinet as it started to face the debt crisis as well.

Asmat, a woman from Georgia, was an illegal migrant in the Italian town Porto Gruari until the national economic problems started. Three weeks ago she returned back home. Asmat says many Georgians are in search of jobs there, packed in rented shelters spending days without any hope of finding something. She thinks that coming back home was a good choice given the situation.

As it seems, Italians have come up with their own ways of saving money in terms of the economic crisis. For example, they have started to take their elderly parents out of their retirement homes and look after their elderly themselves, therefore many Georgians have lost their jobs as many Georgian women in Italy as well as in Greece are either housekeepers or looking after elderly people. As for the men, most of them work at factories. The average salary in both countries is almost the same. It is 1,371 EUR in Greece and 1,457 EUR in Italy (As for Georgian workers it varies from 700-800).

Compared to Greece, Italy has always been more loyal to migrants. For example, in 2003 700,000 immigrants were given legal recognition in Italy. This was the second largest amount after the US in the 80s. The country has numerous aid centres where migrants from all over the world can get food, clothes and other facilities. This makes it easier for them to endure the crisis.
Inga Kovziridze is a labour migrant in Naples who regularly visits such a centre. As the supermarket prices have become high recently, she gets food and medicine there. Her monthly income is 600 EUR which Inga has to save and sends to her husband and son in Georgia. “Prices are high and the number of foreign job seekers is huge. There are many Georgians, Ukrainian s, Romanians, Bulgarians and Africans here and they all need jobs,” she said. Inga appreciates the effort made by the Government to help all of them.

 Not just the facilities but also the law makes Italy a good place for labour migrants. The Italian Government issues a Stream decree every year, which is a Legal Act for non EU citizens to enter the country for legal working reasons.   

The country is in third place in the list of money transfers to Georgia according to NBG. Italy became a popular destination for labour migrants of Georgia a bit later than Greece, in the first half of the 2000s, when Georgia’s unemployment rate was about 12-13 percent. In 2007 811 legal Georgian migrants were recorded in Italy.

Economic expert Nodar Khaduri doesn’t think the crisis in Italy and Greece is in any way connected with the flow of migrants in those countries. He says that the main problem is that the Eurozone has a common monetary policy but at the same time independent budget and they didn’t have coordinated work among themselves.

Also he is sure the crisis isn’t caused by Greece. “What happens in Greece and Italy is the logical result of their policy. Those countries were spending more than they actually had, so they were borrowing more money. Italy and France just stretched their budgets further than they could afford.”