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By John Kolesidis and Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS, Feb 5 (Reuters) - With his red beanie hat and rickety three-wheeler, 56-year-old Dimitris cuts an unlikely figure as he dives head-first into the garbage to scour for scrap in Athens's wealthy suburbs.
The unemployed builder is one of the few Greeks to defy taboos by becoming a scrap dealer in a country where the job is considered the lowly domain of illegal migrants.
But Dimitris, who worked on construction sites for 42 years before losing his job, has grown proud of a trade he turned to as a last resort to make ends meet during Greece's worst economic crisis in decades. And he learned it can pay well too.
"In the beginning I used hoods and scarves to cover my face. I didn't want people recognising me. I was ashamed," he said, declining to give his last name because much of the scrap trade is done informally and off the books.
"It was difficult but I got into the spirit of things. What else can you do when there's no work?"
About half of the country's construction workers have lost their jobs since 2007 as demand for new homes collapsed amid the crisis, and debt-laden Greece's unemployment rate is the highest in the European Union.
Unlike the dozens of poor, usually African or Asian migrant scrap hunters spotted in rundown areas balancing supermarket trolleys stacked with metal, plastic and paper, Dimitris ventures to posh neighbourhoods where surprised residents at times even call him in to hand over used items.
Though it's an open secret that money made in the scrap business is rarely declared - he says he has never run into trouble with the police, who have detained thousands of migrants doing similar work as part of sweeps that began in August.
"Being Greek is definitely an advantage and my neighbours tell me: good for you, we commend you!" he said.
Clad in jeans and a loose-fitting jacket, the white-haired father of two is now a familiar face to shopkeepers in his working-class neighbourhood, who hand over disused radiators and air conditioners.
Over at the weigh station - an old warehouse covered wall to wall with tall piles of glossy magazines, dismantled laptops and vacuum cleaners - dealers divide up the findings and offer Dimitris anything from 10 euros to 200 euros ($13.53-$270) in cash for a day's work.
That is enough to get by on for now, but Dimitris worries about the future of his children - a 26-year-old unemployed son and a daughter who will soon complete high school - and others facing Greece's impossible job market.
At least some of them could try collecting scrap despite the stigma, he says.
"Rather than sitting around in cafes all day the youth could give this a shot," he said. "People laugh but you can make a decent day's work from trash. We lost our dignity (during the crisis) but we can still try to make a decent living."
($1 = 0.7392 euros) (Writing by Karolina Tagaris, editing by Paul Casciato)