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Italy’s migrant workers stand up for their rights

Last weekend one hundred and fifty tomato pickers in the southern Italian region of Puglia walked off the job.  

The workers, African immigrants, had been labouring for 10 hours a day in back breaking conditions for a mere 20 euros (17 pounds) a day.

They were getting paid 3.5 euros a “cassatone”, a 100 kg crate. Out of these takings a cut had to be given to the caporale, a middleman, of 3-5 euros a day, just for luxury of getting picked to do the job, plus another 3 euros to him, for transport to the fields.

And it was all in the black. No social insurance. No contract. No paperwork. No rights.

What’s more many of them had been sleeping rough, outside, as there wasn’t enough tents. There was no hot water. Sanitation was poor. Their situation was positively “prehistoric”, as one local journalist covering the strike puts it.

There is nothing exceptional about this story – it’s not just the labourers, or braccianti of Nardo in the ‘heel’ of Italy, but tens of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants escaping war and poverty in their home countries who work in these conditions every year, picking tomatoes, oranges and other fruit, doing jobs that Italians won’t do.

A 2009 report by the European Network Against Racism found that “90% of migrant workers do not have a labour contract and, 16% have been victims of violence. The living conditions of seasonal workers in Southern Italy are “inhumane”: 65% live in poor housing with no access to water, 62% have no access to toilets and 76% have chronic illness, mostly linked to working conditions.”

It continued: “Workers complained that they were being blackmailed by their employers, that there were delays in payment, that there was no respect for the safety of the workers when using pesticides….

“Seasonal agricultural workers are forced to move from one place to another, living in the countryside where they work with no contact with local services and the local population.

 “Their chances of forming a family or integrating are inexistent; on the contrary, their irregular situation in the labour market exposes them to illegal exploitation and conflicts with the local population. ”

Conservative estimates put the number of workers in the hands of illegal gangmasters at 550,000 (800,000 in total are working, without any rights, in the black market). And it is the ndraghetta, the Sicilian Mafia and the Camorra of Naples who are the key players. 

It is impossible that the authorities don’t know about this but there are very few inspections to ensure the law is being upheld and ‘very little interest’ in the matter shown by politicians or institutions, according to the CGIL trade union.   

Now for the first time the people who are treated no better than slaves to satisfy our appetites for pizza and pasta have said enough is enough. And they are standing up for their rights.

Their demands? No more illegal gangmasters – instead regular employment relations with the landowner or via the local employment office. Adherence to the provincial agricultural contract, which requires 5.92 euros an hour and 38.49 euros for a six and a half hour day. And accommodation and sanitary facilities fit for human beings.

It’s a brave stand. One of the leading strikers has received death threats from one gangmaster and his sidekicks. Many without the right papers fear the wrath of the authorities who can impose hefty fines on illegal migrants.  

Fortunately they are not alone. The CGIL and local voluntary groups have been giving the workers practical help – and trying to get the authorities to live up to their responsibilities.

Last month the CGIL published a report, Immigrazione, Sfruttamento, Conflitto Sociale (Immigration, exploitation and social conflict) on the conditions faced by migrant workers in the south and looked at the social, economic make-up of the areas where they work. It concluded that some areas in the South, in Sicily, Campani,Puglia and Calabria, were “powder kegs” just waiting to go off.

The CGIL has been long pressing for tougher legislation – in particular a law has been proposed by an Apulian opposition senator that would make gang-mastering a criminal offence. This must form part of a concerted push against the black economy, backed up by a tough inspection regime, severe penalties and the removal of tax breaks and public financing for offenders, says the CGIL. 

This is the kind of action that left-wing Puglia Governor Nichi Vendola has taken in his region since he was first elected in 2006, legalizing the position of 44,000 workers in agriculture and construction. But he argues he can only do so much and that the problem will not be solved until national action backed by sufficient funding for enforcement is taken.

The strike of the braccianti of Nardo is holding. On Thursday they took their demands to the provincial capital of Lecce. They have secured a commitment from the provincial administrators to discuss their working conditions.

Here’s hoping their stand might start a real fight back against this modern day slavery.   


That conditions the braccianti of Nardo find themselves in is appalling but should not surprise in a country with a government including the Northern League and led by Silvio Berlusconi.

The Northern League’s core supporters are tax-dodging small businesses in Italy’s north who see all state regulation as red tape. Cowed, unorganised illegal immigrants are the source of a good proportion of their profits too.

Since it first emerged in the early 1990s under the leadership of Umberto Bossi the party has addressed the issue of immigration purely in terms of a security problem, and at a national and local level, it has been feeding Italians with a relentless stream of racist propaganda. More recently it has been getting even greater traction by preying on the growing economic insecurity felt among Italians. 

But the Northern League wouldn’t have made such an impact without billionaire Berlusconi.

The media magnate has declared repeated tax amnesties in the three governments he’s led since 1994 and has an ongoing trial for tax fraud. He’s also faced trials in the past on mafia collusion and is thoroughly tolerant of party members and cabinet members who are tainted with allegations of links with organised crime, like Saverio Romano, agriculture minister, who is currently under investigation on mafia-related charges.

As to his attitude to race, the prime minister once commented on President Obama’s “suntan”. He also said: “Reducing the number of immigrants inItalymeans less labour for criminality.” And his monopoly of the TV ensures such views dominate the airwaves. 

The public discourse has been matched by legislation that includes making undocumented entry and stay inItalya crime punishable by a hefty fine.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch in a report published earlier this year, documented serious law enforcement abuses against Roma, during camp evictions and in the custody of police or Carabinieri, a Defense Ministry force that shares responsibility for civilian policing inItaly.

As HRW points out “political rhetoric, government policies, and media coverage linking immigrants and Roma to crime have fueled an environment of intolerance.”

One Italian anti-racism organization found 398 media reports of hate crimes in 2009, with 186 physical assaults, 18 of which led to death.

Clearly the actual number of incidents must be higher, but official statistics completely underestimate the problem, partly because of the way the crime figures are collected (no disaggregated statistics on crime reports or prosecutions) and partly because victims fear reporting crimes.  

There have been numerous recent examples of mob violence and individual attacks targeting migrants, Roma, and Italians of foreign descent. But the grimmest incident of all was in Rosarno, in the ‘toe’ of Italy, a centre of orange picking, largely controlled by the ‘ndragheta, the Calabrian crime syndicate.

In January 2010 African seasonal migrant workers were victims of acts of extreme violence, including drive-by shootings and three days of mob violence which left at least 11 migrants hospitalized with serious injuries. Local residents and law enforcement officers also suffered injuries, some of them caused by migrants during riots against the mob attacks. Workers found to be illegal were transported off to detention centres.

However, in line with the practice of prosecutors and the courts to take a restrictive view of the law on racial hatred (ie it must be the sole motivation), the events in Rosarno did not lead to prosecutions and convictions for racially-motivated crimes. Only three Italians were prosecuted and convicted in connection with the violence.


About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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