Italy: 21st-century slavery in Apulia's tomato fields
Italian investigative journalist Fabrizio Gatti, who revealed abuses suffered by migrants in groundbreaking reports by smuggling himself into Milan's Via Corelli CPT (detention centre for migrants) and a reception centre in Lampedusa, has produced a new report for L'espresso weekly magazine, in which he provides an account of conditions experienced by workers in tomato fields in the province of Foggia in Apulia (Italy's southeastern region, characterised as the heel of the boot). The report reveals the inhumane conditions suffered by thousands of illegally employed workers from Africa and Eastern Europe, whose status as "illegals" results in them being at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, and is a strong indictment of the exploitation resulting from the EU's restrictive immigration policies. The abuses that Gatti, who posed as a South African for a week in order to be allowed into the lodgings occupied by Africans, uncovers include:
- low pay that workers sometimes receive with considerable delay, and long working hours (6a.m. to the late evening);
- a situation of "bonded" labour, in which part of the wages are witheld by employers as payment for accommodation in overcrowded and unhygienic lodgings without electricity or running water, and debts are incurred for the purchase of overpriced products needed for subsistence in the only shop on the site;
- the brutal practices employed by foremen (who are often migrants) in the fields, which include insults, fines for not showing up (even if they are ill), beatings for faults such as arriving late for work or dropping crates of tomatoes, and manhunts when workers seek to escape or report abuses to the authorities;
- instances in which workers are asked to allow foremen or bosses to take sexual advantage of women who may accompany them to improve their chances of being employed.
Gatti's remarks that highlight the distance between legislation that is in force (the EU regime on unfair competition, constitutional guarantees for the rights of workers, human rights and against discrimination) and the practices on the ground, are reminiscent of Maurice Lemoine's novel "Bitter Sugar" (1981), in which the author quotes from legal agreements applicable to Haitian migrant workers in Dominican sugarcane fields before describing the deplorable conditions they are subjected to, which obviously contravene these norms. Moreover, Gatti notes how the one occasion in which legality is applied was when a Romanian worker who complained about conditions had both his arms broken by a foreman in his sleep and was served an expulsion order for "not having a passport" when he was handed to the police after receiving medical care in hospital. The order subsequently led to his temporary arrest for not having complied with it by leaving Italy, when he later attempted to report his attacker to the police, and may lead to a trial which could see him receive a prison sentence, in accordance with Italy's law on immigration.
Gatti also claims that there have been instances when workers who died in suspicious circumstances were found in this area, and that there have been disappearances. The only official record of these relate to attempts by the Polish embassy to find 13 nationals who are believed to have disappeared in the region. Following up on this lead, Repubblica newspaper reported that the Polish police is seeking information concerning 119 nationals believed to have migrated to work in Italy's fields who have disappeared, and that the carabinieri's ROS (Special Operations Unit) and the anti-Mafia investigative department in Bari have opened investigations into 15 suspicious deaths (14 of them Polish, and one Lithuanian) in the region.
In 2005, the Italian branch of Medécins sans frontières (MSF) published a report that describes the exploitation of migrant workers in southern Italian regions (Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania and Sicily) and notes that they are healthy when they arrive and become ill after spending some time in poor conditions in Italy.
"Io, schiavo in Puglia", Fabrizio Gatti, L'espresso, 7 September 2006, pp. 28-35. Available online in the L'espresso website, in Italian, at: http://espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio/Io%20schiavo%20in%20Puglia/1370307&ref=hpstr1
and in English at:
14-page summary (in Italian) of Medécins sans frontières - Italy (MSF) report "I frutti dell'ipocrisia. Storia di chi l'agricoltura la fa. Di nascosto", an investigation into the living conditions and health of foreign workers employed in Italian agriculture; MSF, March 2005 available at:
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