ATHENS - Greece's conservative government is working on a plan to integrate hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants to fill worker shortages in agriculture, construction and tourism, ministry officials said on Wednesday. Like other European countries, Greece faced an exodus of workers from the labour force, both natives and legal immigrants, during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, many of whom never returned.

The new proposal would look at allowing the 300,000 migrants estimated already to be living illegally in Greece to work in some sectors, Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis told state broadcaster ERT.

"We need to see what to do with the population that is already in our country, without creating further magnets for others to come illegally," Kairidis said.

He gave no further details on the plan, which is still in an early stage. Kairidis is expected to formally outline the initiative at a cabinet meeting next month, a migration ministry official told Reuters.

Greece has taken a tough stance on migration since Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was first elected in 2019, hiring more border guards and boosting patrols on its land and sea borders to stop new arrivals.

The country of 11 million has long attracted thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe seeking jobs and a better life, many of whom end up working illegally for years, mostly on farms or in construction or as domestic workers.

Agriculture Minister Lefteris Avgenakis said he was in talks with the migration ministry to tackle this problem. He said Greece needs about 180,000 land workers each year, traditionally filled using worker schemes with Albania, Bangladesh, India and Egypt, but bureacucratic delays were leading to shortages.

"It is a fact that we have several thousand illegal workers in our country, who, for many years, have known the particularities and difficulties of raising sheep and goats," Avgenakis said.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou Editing by Peter Graff)