Can Europe Make It?

Subverting neoliberal slavery: migrant struggles against labour exploitation in Italy

We are witnessing cumulative processes of politicization – struggles and organization involving migrant workers and activists setting out to build awareness locally, and link up globally.     

Susi Meret Sergio Goffredo
25 March 2017

Destruction by fire of the Gran Ghetto in Puglia. Liminal geographies. Some rights reserved.…we cannot tell from contemplation of any object in the supermarket what conditions lay behind its production … We can take our daily breakfast without a thought for the myriad people who engaged in its production. All traces of exploitation are obliterated in the object (there are no finger marks of exploitation in the daily bread)’.   (D Harvey, 1989)

March 3, 2017. Early in the morning in the working camp known as the ‘Great Ghetto’, a shanty town in the lowlands of the Italian Apulia region, two young Malian agricultural labourers, Mamadou Konate and Nouhou Doumbia lost their lives in the fire that had raged through the night in huts made of plastic, wooden and cardboard.

The Gran Ghetto has for more than two decades ‘housed’ hundreds of migrant workers under modern slave-like conditions as daily farm labourers in nearby fields. A number that in the tomato harvesting season reaches thousands, adds to the hundreds thousands of migrants exploited in the countryside. Cheap and underpaid labour contributes to making Italy’s agricultural sector (but not only that sector) internationally competitive on the global markets.

The Gran Ghetto was undergoing a clearance suddenly ordered by local authorities and motivated by alleged criminal infiltration. The Gran Ghetto is “[a] disgrace, which has grown out of years of indifference”, if you listen to the president of the Apulia region, Michele Emiliano. Fine. But why such a hasty clear-up after decades of tolerated (co-)existence? Well, interestingly the action coincides with Emiliano’s political challenge to former PM Matteo Renzi over the leadership of the centre-left Democratic Party, to which both belong.  

One cannot avoid pondering to what extent the decision to intervene here and now corresponds to a hasty attempt to appease an electorate increasingly resentful towards the migrants. Nevertheless, the tragic death of two young, exploited farm workers, who had refused to leave the camp on the grounds that they would lose their only source of income, was soon dismissed by the mainstream media. It read as so often before: another fatal casualty of two illegal migrants working without a permit in Italy on one of the many makeshift camps scattered throughout the territory that need to be wiped out. End of story.

End of story, perhaps for all those still unwilling to look deeper into the inequalities and exploitation enabling this neoliberal system to work and reproduce itself on a daily basis in the way that it does. Unwilling to contemplate something with a much closer relationship to the way our breakfast has been produced, to paraphrase David Harvey.

Agricultural labour

In recent decades, the agricultural sector has been severely affected by price reduction, productivity de-regulation and increased labour exploitation. This has had a direct negative impact on all levels of agricultural production, but particularly on labour. The agribusiness sector has traditionally got away with exploitative and illegal labour practices, in several cases helped by the tacit complicity of local administrations and governments. This is particularly the case when it comes to the exploitation of the more vulnerable categories of daily waged farmworkers: women and irregularized/undocumented migrants.

The latter group in particular provides a significant and growing pool of cheap labour that can readily be exploited and forced to accept inhuman working conditions that in turn take advantage of migration regimes fostering illegalization through dispossession. What we see here is an example of the Italian case, where migrant labour exploitation in agriculture is embedded in the structural economy of the country, creating a ‘Ghetto Economy’ that facilitates the supply of a cheap, non-unionised, labour force without any rights. At the same time and in response to these conditions we are witnessing cumulative processes of politicization – struggles and organization involving migrant workers and activists setting out to build awareness locally, but link up globally.     

Forced labour and exploitation in agriculture have been the subject of political debate in Italy for decades. Recently the discussion was reignited among the institutions on the brink of an approval of Law decree no. 2217, better known as the Caporalato Law; and also by plans at EU level to accelerate practices of incarceration and deportation of undocumented migrants in the country. The dramatic worsening of the living conditions of the migrant farm workers in these worker slums scattered all over the Italian territory manifestly goes hand in hand with the tightening of migration and asylum laws in Italy and in Europe. These are conditions ripe for the prompt reorganisation of  local and global struggles for labour and civic rights, as called for by many of the migrant activists we have talked to and with over recent years.

Italy’s red gold: but who’s profiting?

Pizza, pasta and red sauce: the basics of the Italian cooking, and of the country’s economy too. Italy is among the world’s leading tomato-producing and -exporting countries, whose profits have given the coveted red fruit the name, ‘Red Gold’. Hardly surprisingly, the tomato industry is considered the crown jewel of Italian import-export agriculture.  

As reported by the Italian ANICAV (the National Industry Association for canned food) the estimated sales of Italian tomatoes for 2015 amounted to around 3 billion euros, with a production of 5.5 million tons of tomatoes and 70 thousand hectares of arable soils. Only about 40 per cent of the processed tomato products are marketed domestically, the rest is sold worldwide. Truly a ’red gold’ product for Italian agribusiness. The geographical area for tomato production is predominately located in the Italian South, particularly in the regions of Campania and Puglia. In Puglia the rural lowland area known as la ‘Capitanata’ is among the largest manufacturer of tomatoes in Italy, with a production zone covering up to 40 per cent of the national market. But these huge profits cover up the enormous social and labour costs associated with this sector; in particular, the intensive labour exploitation and modern slave-like conditions that make the life of thousands of migrant farm workers a daily hell on earth, deprived of access to basic labour rights, decent housing, healthcare, dignity. And Labour conditions have further deteriorated since the economic crisis in Italy, as elsewhere, led to a downturn in the whole agribusiness system.

The ‘Caporalato’ system: labour exploitation as a structural problem 

The sectoral crisis has worsened the phenomenon of illegal hiring of migrant farm work, known as the caporalato practice. This system highly relies on the activity of the middleman, the caporale. The caporale is often a former worker made responsible by the farmer for the recruitment and transport of the labour force. This grants the caporale an economic profit, which is often directly – and illegitimately – deducted from the worker’s salary. The illicit activity is not limited to the form of payment, but also to the authority vested in the caporale, who arbitrarily decides who to recruit, when, for how long, bidding the lowest salary and preventing forms of organised protest and rebellion through the use of violence, coercion, and threat. The caporalato system mainly indicates forms of exploitation in agriculture, but – as pointed out by Perrotta and Alò (Perrotta, 2014; Alò, 2010) – today it thrives also in other sectors of the precariat labour market, as for instance in the construction industry, in the tourist sector.

Worker organisations have throughout the years and with varying tactics striven to address this problem, but overall with very poor and unconvincing results, as manifestly proven by places like the Gran Ghetto, or the slum of San Ferdinando in Rosarno, as well as in several other rural areas both North and South of the country.

The caporalato is a symptom of structural economic and socio-political factors that have an interest in maintaining, reproducing and letting this practice thrive. In the Capitanata district, for instance, the caporalato was a historical product of the turn made by the capitalist system to an intensive and largely monocultural agriculture, which replaced the more diverse activities of local rural communities. In this sense, “the caporalato [is] functional to the increasing productivity demanded by the factory farms” (Alò 2010: 42). This transformation also promoted forms of exploitative, precarious and oppressive labour that take advantage of the availability of a cheap (migrant) labour force. In this sense, migration flows since the beginning of the twentieth century have already revealed the role played by the caporalato system in the recruitment and exploitation of workers coming from the Southern Italian regions to the rice plantations of Piedmont and Lombardia in the North. Their object, a ready supply of cheap and exploitable labour, mostly provided at that time by internal migration.  

Where is the state in all this?  

While labour exploitation is not new, the composition of the workforce has changed over time and the levels of exploitation have worsened. At present, it is mainly migrants who contribute to making the Italian agricultural sector competitive on the global market. According to a CGIL-FLAI estimate, ca. 3.5 million people are employed irregularly, bound to exhausting working days, deprived of their basic rights, unable to denounce those who exploit them.

Since the 1960s and 1970s Italian authorities have made some, but often mild and unsuccessful attempts to prevent the spread of these practices. With the increasing liberalization and de-regulation of the agricultural sector in the 1990s (e.g. with the introduction of the so called ‘Treu Reform’) employers were given almost free hands to decide recruitment, employment conditions and working contracts. The consequences were manifest and are today well documented: tax frauds, use of irregular labour and working conditions characterised by serious human rights violations.

The anti-caporalato law

The recently implemented anti-caporalato law sets out, once again, to mend earlier mistakes and combat criminal practices. The penalty for labour exploitation is one to six years’ imprisonment and a fine from 500 to 1000 euros for each exploited worker. If the offence involves the use of violence or threat, the punishment entails imprisonment from up to eight years and a fine between 1,000 to 2,000 euros for each recruited worker. However, penalties against the caporali leave unresolved most of the structural and deep-rooted problems in the farming chain.

For the USB independent trade unionist and national executive delegate, Aboubakar Soumahoro, the law leaves unaddressed such inhumane and degrading conditions experienced by migrant farm workers as lack of housing, lack of healthcare and of basic labour and civil rights. Also, the illegalized condition of the field worker makes it difficult if not impossible for them to denounce those who are exploiting them. To get the necessary support from local authorities, while having no-status, being undocumented, illegalised and dispossessed, is virtually impossible. This situation is also a direct product of the infamous 2002 Bossi-Fini law, which institutionalized the crime of ‘clandestinity’, leaving migrant labourers even more vulnerable and exposed to exploitation. In th estimation of the USB delegates, migrants today are literally blackmailed: on the one side the caporale promises them the chance to obtain a residence permit when they are hired; on the other the residence permit request is never issued and keeps the worker in a condition of complete illegality.Denouncing exploitation would furthermore entail having to declare one’s-self  ‘employed’ but without a residence permit – which for the above law qualifies you for deportation.

Building local, linking global: migrant struggles for rights

The independent trade union USB has in recent years been very active in promoting the unionization of migrant farm workers, aiming also at giving them a platform on which to raise their voices, with which to participate and claim their rights.

As explained to us by USB delegates Aboubakar Soumahoro and Patrick Kondè, this is still a work in progress, which is yielding positive results, but needs to deal with a system based on control, intimidation, violence and threat used by the farmers through their caporali to keep oppressed workers silent.

However, there are concrete examples of how forms of politicisation and unionization help to achieve concrete results. Take Venosa, a municipality in the Basilicata region. In summer 2016, several demonstrations organized by the USB and denouncing forms of labour exploitation and enslavement gathered sizable support from the migrants working in the surrounding fields. As a consequence, the President of the Basilicata region, Marcello Pittella, had to publicly address the problem and find prompt solutions for the farm workers, who were given better housing facilities and labour conditions. As Soumahoro observed: “our mission was to press the institutions to acknowledge the existence of these people, whose situation and labour conditions were totally invisible before our arrival”. Unions and other organizations can work by, with and for migrants and against those “professionals of migrant reception”, who profit from migration by providing assistance, but without really any interest in addressing concrete problems, such as the attainment of residence permits, housing, and security at work.

Similarly, the 2011 strike of migrant farm workers in Nardò, a small town in the south of the Puglia region, led to significant improvements in labour conditions and rights. Migrant workers went on strike for days to raise their media profile, and alert politicians and public opinion to their lack of rights, exploitation and deprivation. They were able to claim a better life and working conditions for themselves; many decided to sue the farmers and the caporali who were exploiting them. Significantly, approximately 80 per cent of farm workers now employed in this area have a regular working permit. Also, the mobilization triggered alternative forms of cooperation; for example between farm workers from different ethnic backgrounds, who established entrepreneurial activities for the production of tomatoes at sustainable prices, alongside fair and sustainable working conditions for the workers involved.

There are lessons and experiences to be learnt from these migrant-led collectives that politicians, institutions, and local administrations should heed. They should discuss together with the workers, their trade unions and local organisations how to arrive at sustainable alternatives that can put an end to today’s practices of modern slave-like labour exploitation; those that killed Mamadou Konate and Nouhou Doumbia this month at the Gran Ghetto in Italy and the many others before them.


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