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Containment, resistance, flight: Migrant labour in the agro-industrial district of Foggia, Italy

A ‘special economic zone’ exists in southeastern Italy where the rules and standards of work do not apply. 

franco lovec/flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The province of Foggia, the southeastern region of Italy known as Tavoliere or Capitanata, ranks as the country’s second largest industrial-tomato producing district, its second largest expanse of fertile flatland in the country, as well as its second largest employer of migrant farm labourers. Or at least that is what official statistics imply for what is a notoriously opaque sector of the Italian economy. Indeed, the agro-industrial district of Foggia, as many others like it, arguably functions as a sort of informal, murky ‘special economic zone’. In this ordinarily exceptional space, extra-legal arrangements operate side by side with a series of legal mechanisms to fragment, control and discipline labourers, their mobility and most aspects of their existence.

The zone relies on an institutionally backed, selective suspension of laws and rights through the production of spaces where the labour force can be contained. Such arrangements are well suited to ‘just-in-time’ and ‘to-the-point’ modes of production, which in the case of Foggia concern a vast array of raw and processed food products sold on national and, increasingly, international markets, through extensive, retail-driven commodity chains. Thus, against the common view which relates the problem with these spaces to southern Italian agriculture's supposed ‘backwardness’, the latter arguably keeps well up with the times. Agro-industrial production constitutes a driving force of the economy: it is the only sector in Italy which not only avoided the economic crisis but has experienced constant growth since 2008, especially thanks to the growth of its exports.

In the zone, farm workers earn on average less than half the minimum wage established by collective agreements. Many work for a piece rate rather than an hourly wage, and in most cases do so entirely outside the social security system. Working hours greatly exceed those prescribed, and illegal gangmasters, frequently employed to recruit and discipline the labour force, charge workers for transport to the fields as well as accommodation, whilst these costs should be borne by farmers. For the most part, workers are lodged in shacks, run-down abandoned buildings lacking basic utilities, or institutionally sponsored labour camps. When not left to their own devices, or poorly managed, official lodgings generally enforce strict regulations to limit workers’ freedom of movement and association.

For the most part, workers are lodged in shacks, run-down abandoned buildings lacking basic utilities, or institutionally sponsored labour camps.

Since most farm labourers are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or Eastern Europe, the costs of their reproduction (i.e. essentially for their upbringing, care and retirement) are further externalised outside Italian borders. This trend has further intensified since the enlargement of the European Union to countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, which has allowed seasonal migration on a much greater scale. In the periods of the agricultural cycle when they are not needed, these workers can easily return to their country of origin, where the cost of life is lower. This has also meant the further deterioration of working conditions as salaries have been allowed to drop. The Italian state can further dispense with welfare provisions for workers and their dependents (pensions, unemployment benefits, maternity and sick leave, housing and child benefits, and so on) through administrative tools of (partial) exclusion. These range from a totally undocumented status for some non-EU migrants – amounting to virtual rightlessness – to forms of second-class citizenship for EU workers that bar them from the fruition of basic services and rights.

The functioning of the zone thus depends on an array of infrastructures which shape and pace flows of people and commodities, labour and care relations. Among them, those which govern internal and international mobility play a major role: immigration laws, bilateral agreements, residency regulations, the suspension of Schengen treaties and immigrant labour quotas, the militarisation of borders, the enlargement of the EU, as well as the arbitrary and expedient disrespect of existing regulations all combine to make a large number of potential day labourers available at cheap rates on the market.

Producing space, governing movement

Related to the migration regime and more broadly to the government of labour mobility, different spatial technologies of containment – also founded on a logic of legal exception or on the selective application of the law – are in place to discipline and govern the labour force and its reproduction. From asylum-seeker reception centres to shantytowns, from migrant detention centres and prisons to labour camps, a continuum of unfreedom unfolds to pace movement and foster docility, as well as to extract profit. In this sense, in the agro-industrial zone one can find echoes of the dynamics of command and control which characterised the early-modern plantation as a total institution.

The province of Foggia hosts one of the largest asylum-seeker reception centres in Italy, which accommodates around 1,500 male migrants in dire conditions (repeatedly exposed both by the media, and by judicial and parliamentary inquiries). This provides a constant stream of cheap labour to the farms, and is a major source of profit for the companies managing it in utter disregard of their official mandate. Additionally, the authorities in charge of assessing asylum seekers' applications pressure them to show their ‘willingness to integrate’ by working in exchange for humanitarian protection. This undercuts wages even further, also on account of the fact that board and accommodation are provided for the ‘guests’ of these centres, who are thus willing to receive lower salaries, and, as newcomers, are unaware of the regulations and rights concerning farm labour. The ‘official’ camp is complemented by a large and ever-expanding informal settlement skirting its perimeter, located along a former military airstrip where the government had initially installed containers and pre-fabricated houses to host the very first waves of refugees in the 1990s, then abandoned to their own destiny.

The “ghettoes”, as these settlements are known by their inhabitants, form a sequence of makeshift living clusters which litter the migration route from Niger all the way to Calais.

Here the blurry boundary between – indeed the mutual constitution of – the institutional and the informal, and between government and abandonment, comes into stark relief. Nor is this the only slum in the area. The “ghettoes”, as these settlements are known by their inhabitants, form a sequence of makeshift living clusters which litter the migration route from Niger all the way to Calais, through northern Africa, Italy or Spain. The authorities periodically attempt – and sometimes succeed, as it was the case in 2017 for a large settlement known as Grand Ghetto, as well as of a smaller, Bulgarian Roma slum – to raze them to the ground, more for the benefit of the media and the electorate than as a way to effectively get rid of the problem. Ghettoes have existed in the region at least since the early 1990s, shifting location when evictions and destructions occur, but resilient as hubs for transit migration; as refuges for the undocumented, the poor and the criminalised; as recruitment centres for the farm-labour force; and as platforms supplying a modicum of reproductive services for their inhabitants, from commercial sex to drinking water and cooked meals, hot water, laundry services, phone-charging spots, entertainment and sociality, markets for all kinds of commodities.

Disciplined, but not subdued

Whilst serving to pool labourers and facilitate the task of their recruitment, ghettoes and camps – like prisons and administrative detention centres, of which so many among their inhabitants have had some experience – have also acted as hotbeds of protest and revolt. Dwellers of these spaces, in Foggia and elsewhere in Italy, have not only engaged in acts of spontaneous rebellion but also, especially since 2015, started to self-organise in more structured fashion. They have gained some victories concerning their legal status, residency rights, and police abuse, but much remains to be done, especially on the housing and labour fronts. Indeed, it is evident that ghettoes do not operate merely as housing and recruitment centres organic to the workings of the zone. This, of course, is one more reason for the governmental apparatus to further control, divide, and discipline the living places of precarious farm labourers and those servicing their needs.

What is at stake in governmental attempts to wrest these spaces from informal management is precisely a will to control labour and its mobility, indeed to dictate its conditions, to formalise the informal or to exploit it as political and economic capital. The numerous evictions or threats thereof; the spectacular police operations against gangmasters; the public events and conferences that narrowly focus on the issue of illegal intermediation – these not only serve to scapegoat and criminalise, but to avoid addressing the structural forces shaping these dynamics. In fact, they promote a politics in which (legally and socially) exceptional circumstances are normalised.

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that earlier this year a government decree simultaneously allowed for the establishment of special economic zones in southern Italy and allocated resources for the management of different ‘problem-spaces’ in those very areas that should host the zones, including the informal shantytowns in the district of Foggia and in other similar spaces. Whether the formalisation of the zone will materialise, or whether this is merely another exercise in propaganda and the politics of patronage which constantly reproduces emergencies, remains to be seen, and depends in no small part on the capacity for organisation of ghetto-dwellers and their allies. 


This Guest Week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Joanny Belair, Raúl Zecca Castel, Irene Peano, and Layla Zaglul Ruiz to participate in the discussion.

About the author

Irene Peano is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, and an active member of the militant network 'Campagne in Lotta', which supports the struggles of migrant farm labourers in different parts of Italy. She has conducted research on different forms of migrant labour exploitation since 2005, when she begun her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge on the trafficking of Nigerian women, which she completed in 2011. She is currently working on different aspects of the nexus between sex and farm labour, for which she conducts field research both in Italy and in Romania, and on the spatial dimensions of forms of containment and racialisation in contemporary Italy as well as on their genealogies.


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