Exploitation and illegality of migrant workers in the Italian agro-industry

Bad conditions of migrant workers
Many migrant workers live in degrading conditions (courtesy of Marc-Antoine Frébutte)

By Marc-Antoine Frébutte

(edited by Timothy Raeymaekers)

This text is a translated part of my Master's thesis on ‘Exploitation and illegality in the Italian agro-industry’, which I took on in 2015 in the context of the SNIS-funded project ‘New Plantations’. During the Summer 2015, I spent two months in Basilicata, in the South of Italy, working with Medici per i Diritti Umani (MEDU) and doing interviews with migrant workers. The thesis focuses on the plight of migrant workers in Italy’s tomato plantations, in the area of Foggia (Puglia) and the Vulture Alto Bradano (Basilicata). Each Summer, tomatoes which will end up on supermarket shelves around the world are being picked by these labourers in the South of Italy, at prices that beat all competition. These low prices have a high cost, however, which is increasingly carried by the land, the producers and precarious farm workers.

For my thesis, I first spent several months working on the issue of migrant labour in agriculture before going to Venosa, in Basilicata in the Summer of 2015. MEDU’s (Medici per I Diritti Umani) mission was to bring medical help to migrant workers whose lives revolved principally around so-called ‘ghettos’: semi-permanent settlements of plastic shelters and abandoned buildings in the vicinity of productive sites. While accompanying these medical teams, I held several semi-directed interviews with migrant workers and caporali, collecting testimonies, observing living conditions and taking pictures. Next to my work in the ghettos, I also interviewed other NGOs, local institutions (such as city council members and trade unions), as well as (alternative) agricultural producers.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, agricultural production in Italy evolved from a small farm operating at the family and community level to a mass production based on the Californian model. The first produced its crops, fertilizer and seed in an almost closed and self-sufficient circle, supplying food on the local market. The second sells on the world market and buys at Monsanto or Limagrain what she used to produce herself in the past. This change has led to an increased specialization of production according to the Ricardo model, mechanization of agriculture and a massive exodus from the countryside to the cities of the unemployed. This development has pushed many small producers in need and out of their land. Since the 1980s, we have seen the spread of neoliberal ideology and globalization to agricultural production. Agricultural actors of the planet have been placed in competition, creating new global circuits of production and distribution. We have seen the standardization of agricultural products and processed products. We have seen the development of international transport, which has become cheaper and much faster. Finally, there has been an increasing fixation on world markets of prices, pulled down by the new techniques of intensive production which are destructive of the environment and of societies.

For the producers who remained on their land despite the deterioration of their living conditions, they had to adapt and follow this imposed march towards global supermarketization. The Californian model is characterized by mass monocultures, which use the soil and spread over large areas, and by a need for a large temporary labor force, which needs to be cheap and flexible. Compared to other forms of traditional industrial production, the specificity of agricultural production is in the notion of "harvest". This element is essential and determining of the whole production. This is the vital moment for the survival of producers and the culmination of a year of work. It is also and above all a moment that cannot be shifted in time. Labor must be available and ready quickly, depending on changing weather conditions and the maturation of production. When they are ready, it is urgent to harvest them and protect them from the elements. The number of workers will vary greatly depending on the year, making the estimation of human needs impossible to plan and requiring a large reservoir in the event of unforeseen fluctuations. This need for speed at the time of harvest is causing tensions between the client and the workers, because social movements that may appear at this time of the year are perceived as endangering production. The other essential element is the cost of wages for farm workers who account for 40 to 60% of the costs of production in agriculture. It is in producers' interest to keep them as low as possible in order to maintain their profits and not work at a loss, in which case they would prefer to leave their production in the fields to rot. An operator will try as much as possible to shorten the duration of the harvest by having a large workforce. He will disconnect the wages of the hours worked to link it to the quantity of products collected thanks to the piecework payment – even if this is considered illegal practice in many countries. Therefore, it does not matter to him how many people will be employed in his fields and how long they will work because the cost of labour will be proportional to the quantity of products picked up.

To meet this need for flexibility and low wages, producers need to employ a category of workers willing to accept the worst conditions. Access to this workforce is the guarantee of the functioning of this capitalist model. In this sense, the presence of immigrant workers is a boon. The rural exodus of the middle of the 20th century and the recent emigration of young graduates from the countryside to big cities or to other countries has drained the pool of available labour in the various agricultural regions, leaving room for these unskilled, immigrant workers. They are often former peasants who have become unable to ensure their food survival, or people fleeing catastrophic human, political and economic situations in their countries and seeking new ways of survival. It was from the 1970s that migration flows began to change, with the oil shock, recurring economic crises and new, tighter immigration policies in the north. They have had the effect of redirecting the flow of migrants to southern Europe. New job prospects in the southern economies, which are historically more informal, segmented and less observant in terms of labour regulations, have also attracted migrants, not necessarily familiar with the languages ​​and customs of these countries. The presence of foreigners in the agricultural lands of the south of Italy started with the arrival of Tunisians who came to work in Sicily in the mid-1970s. Subsequently, the number of migrants has increased considerably. In the 1980s, workers from sub-Saharan Africa joined this first wave, followed by migrants from Eastern Europe in the 1990s. They did not only focus on agricultural work but also invested in the industrial areas of northern Italy. Among the migrants found in Basilicata today, there are many factory workers who have been fired or in need of work because of the crisis of industries in the North of the country, to which they initially emigrated. Other labourers (admittedly a minority) are undocumented migrants who work as farm labourers throughout the year. Having finished the season of harvesting oranges and watermelons in other Italian regions, they go through Basilicata to harvest strawberries in Spring, and tomatoes at the end of the Summer, before going back to Rosarno for the winter harvest of citrus or Campania for vegetables in the Piana del Sele.

Most migrant workers do not enjoy the same living conditions as Italians living in the surrounding area, in a state of almost universal acceptance. The human rights and dignity that should be attached to the individual, without paying attention to political status and nationality, are therefore called into question. The suspension of the usual social norms is accepted here because it concerns people considered as competitors at the work level, as undesirable, or as outside of visible communal life. Despite the Italian law, which requires the employer of seasonal workers to offer them accommodation, less than 4% have access to it. Some are lodged in centers established by the regions and local institutions, but these are not very popular with migrants. For others, it is almost impossible to rent an apartment in towns and villages during this short period. Rental prices are often out of reach for migrants who do not have a substantial and regular income, furnished housing is scarce and the discrimination they suffer usually closes the door to what they might possibly find, leaving them in an emergency situation.

A kitchen in the ghetto in Boreano
A kitchen in the ghetto in Boreano
A kitchen in the ghetto in Boreano (courtesy of Marc-Antoine Frébutte)

Many migrant workers live in degrading conditions, finding refuge in what is accessible to them. The great agricultural reform that took place in Italy in the 1950s left thousands of abandoned houses on the lands of the Mezzogiorno. Taking advantage of these large abandoned settlements, migrant workers come together by nationality or ethnicity, building makeshift shelters or squatting abandoned houses. These ensembles go as far as forming large ghettos of hundreds or thousands of people, like the great Ghetto near Foggia, which hosts 2500-3000 people during the harvesting season. These ghettos are located in rural areas far away from cities, with no access to water or electricity. Migrants have to travel for miles to find water for washing, drinking and cooking. They live together in extreme overpopulation conditions. They share a room with 10 people, sleep on the floor or share a mattress with other people. When they have a sanitary they share it with dozens of people, otherwise they have to go to the surrounding fields for their needs. This promiscuity, poor hygienic conditions, lack of sanitation, malnutrition and overpopulation favor the spread of infectious diseases. Médecins Sans Frontières reports an unusually high rate of migrants in a state of poor physical conditions. Even if the organization notices that it is mainly sick people who come to see them, they point to the lack of access to medical care that should nevertheless be offered to asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants, preserving their anonymity, as well as to Italians. On average between the ages of 20 and 45, migrants have higher rates of chronic diseases and physical disorders than those of a normal population of this age group, normally considered as "fit". Arriving in Europe in good health, they find themselves very quickly in need of consulting a doctor. After 19 months in Italy, only 2% of the interviewees never needed to see a doctor. They often suffer from infectious diseases, dermatological, respiratory or gastroenteric types. In addition to physical problems, nearly half of them suffer from psycho-emotional disorders, due to loneliness, distance from family and country of origin, as well as a permanent persecution by authorities, financial instability and lack of social recognition.

To summarize, we can witness a strong seclusion of foreign workers, a mixture of segregation and exclusion. Workers are experiencing a strong residential segregation, which enables their exploitation through their distance from the city centers, the local populations and trade unions. A social, economic and cultural divide is formed between migrant workers and locals. Out of work, they rarely come out of ghettos, which are not necessarily perceived negatively by migrants as they offer a solution to the housing problem, insecurity and a possibility of rebuilding a "home" between people of the same origin. In the ghettos, we are witnessing a reconstruction of a form of socialization. A parallel economy has been recreated and we have seen the emergence of restaurants, shops, street vendors, chicken farmers and vendors, mosques, bars and even dance halls. But above all, these ghettos are close to the fields and this is where intermediaries (so-called “caporali”) come to offer work, far from the eyes of the authorities.

Appearing first at the beginning of the 20th century, the caporali had the mission to break the wages and union demands of agricultural workers. Since then, they have kept their position, increasing their importance over time. Playing a dual role, the capo is on the one hand excluding migrant labourers, trying at all costs to limit the contact of migrants with locals and to relegate them to the ghettos. They play on the rivalries between the different nationalities of the migrants in order to break the movements of strikes. On the other hand, their role is inclusionary, ensuring work for those who do not have access to it, particularly those of the same community or those in an irregular situation whom the capo facilitates. But the central figures of the organizations are invariably Italian. They are in charge of placing workers in the different fields when the producers call on them. Already busy with the management of their field (sales of production, purchase of seeds and equipment, administrative management), it is difficult for the producers to find competent workers quickly when the need arises and to have to manage the teams on the field. Under the orders of the Italians a nebula of little "capos" navigates between their bosses’ demands and the needs to their communities. They are usually from the same country as the community they "rule", made up of their family and friends, facilitating contacts and subordination. They live among other workers, providing transportation to the workplace, but also mediation between employers and workers. They are also the ones who manage the work organization in the field and distribute the teams according to the tasks. For their “services”, they collect 50 cents from the 4 euros earned by migrants for each case of 300 kilos of filled tomatoes, plus 5 euros for transport costs. Payment per case/task is prohibited in Italy. This type of compensation is responsible for the death of many agricultural workers each year, as it pushes them to the limit. They impose infernal work in extreme conditions (heat, sun, no break). The young and the most experienced can earn more with this system, but the new, the weaker and the older are penalized by this race for productivity. The workers will fill from 6 to 20 cases per day, gaining from 30 to 80 euros according to their experience and speed. This may seem like a lot, but on average, they will work only 2-3 days a week, spending most of their time waiting for work.

In addition to their “management” activities, the chiefs take care of false contracts to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a residence permit. Under the cover of a real company, they are paid a fixed sum ranging from 1000 € to 3000 € to achieve a two-year employment contract in the name of the immigrant. The time of the contract, the immigrant will have to pay the social contributions to the company by which he is recruited, but for whom he will never work. Thanks to this fraud, which is difficult to identify without the authorities' support, he can obtain a residence permit corresponding to the duration of the contract and remain legally in Italy. After these two years, if he cannot find a real job, he will be obliged to proceed in the same way to keep his residence permit. Migrants are dependent on capos and mafias, who play the same role as temporary employment agencies, ranging from job appeals to work contracts, allowing them to obtain a residence permit – with the only crucial difference that they are placed outside the law. Their role makes us understand better why migrant workers live such a state of seclusion. The criminal systems are very satisfied with the situation of immigrants, a veritable fountain of financial abundance. They prefer to see them working in the fields rather than the Italians, going so far as to force producers to hire foreigners to continue their lucrative markets. That said, the farmers are not too much in demand, delighted to have this black labour, for which they will not pay social security contributions, allowing them to reduce their production costs and to recover their costs (ironically, in Italy, illegal work is called ‘lavoro nero’). For foreign farm workers, this means working 9 hours a day under the sun, without a contract, without being entitled to unemployment retributions, without recognition of their time spent in Italy and without the possibility of gaining legal status if working under fake contracts.

These unworthy living and working conditions are not limited to Italy but extend to many European countries. They are not a unilateral decision of farmers to enslave migrant workers but a consequence of this evolution of agricultural production at the world level, which has opened up national markets, putting farmers in competition and allowing the giants of the food industry and the mafias to gorge themselves. Their irregular presence and exploitation are the guarantee of maintaining an unfair system that respects neither work nor land. To get out of this situation, farmers should be removed from their dependence on markets and focus once again on the quality and origin of the products consumed rather than on quantity. It is up to us, consumers to take control of their destinies by refusing to consume badly, because they cannot get out of a situation they do not control anymore. For this, it would require a thoughtful consumption of local products, the creation of a fair trade & work label in Europe, the creation of national and European laws allowing the traceability of agricultural products along the production chain. These would be different ways of reconnecting consumers to producers and allowing them to work and live in dignified conditions, just like the farm workers they hire. At the same time, the European institutions and the public authorities must rethink agriculture out of this productivity and competitive logic, but also to review their cooperation with developing countries. Land is neither an inexhaustible good nor a privatized good. A new way of consuming and producing is urgently needed, at the risk of seeing food for a minority of privileged people and the example of agricultural society spreading to other sectors of the economy, plunging entire populations in precariousness.

Details of SNIS-funded project: New Plantation.