There is something important in the Italian election political campaign that some critics claim the authorities are refusing to see: tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers. We focus on Calabria, where they have been coming for years, yet their arrival is still treated as a surprise – an emergency.
A form of slavery, the critics say, is thriving in Italy, with immigrants who work the orange harvest in Calabria. Many of the workers say it is worse each year. There were riots over the conditions three years ago, and today the environment in Rosarno has not changed.
From October to March almost 4,000 migrants still live in abandoned houses or makeshift camps and work ten hours a day. Where global prices have pity for no one, it’s an economic interest that feeds off the workers.
“I go out looking, like on an adventure,” said Tounda. “There’s no guarantee you’ll actually be given any work.”
“And if you find someone?
“Then he takes me for the day.”
“For how much?”
Amnesty International confirms that the widespread exploitation of foreign migrant workers in Italy means they often receive less than 40 per cent of the legal minimum wage. That’s if they are hired – and the work is hard. Saving what they earn is even harder.
Toure said: “You might work for two days, then have nothing for three days. That way you spend everything you’ve earned.”
Orange fraud and corruption developed in Calabria decades ago. Land use, fruit production, processing and exports were all falsified, to benefit from EU subsidies. The authorities investigated criminal organisations and public officials on a massive scale in the last decade.
Today this is a relative backwater of the global economy. Farmers in this area now have to accept a price of 25 cents per kilo of oranges or 8 cents for a litre of juice – from a very few big buyers, including Coca Cola. Without the migrant workers, the fruit is left to rot.
A sociologist at the University of Messina, Fabio Mostaccio, said: “Farmers have to accept the prices established by the industry, that does not want to pay more. And that is why we get the exploitation of foreign workers. Labourers were exploited 50 years ago, and it is still happening today. Once they were locals, now they are foreigners.”
This very low-cost labour is like oxygen for the local economy. But there is no policy to take care of the workers when the arrive. The system has mostly been just to look the other way. The government did build a camp in February last year, and that was rapidly doubled in size by do-it-themselves workers. More than 700 were living under plastic sheeting until, in December, after a rainstorm, the mayor felt he had to act.
San Ferdinando Mayor Domenico Madafferi said: “I called for help immediately. I wrote to the prefect, to the regional president of Calabria, to other institutions. Nobody answered. So I had no choice. I had to order the camp closed.”
Despite the urgent humanitarian need, two months went by before enough resources had been gathered for a new camp.
The Prefect of Reggio Calabria, Vittorio Piscitelli, said: “We were determined not to have the same thing happen this winter, with tents unfit for the weather, so with additional effort we decided to use tents normally reserved for after a natural catastrophe.”
Two weeks after that interview the new camp was still empty. The transfer has begun, but the authorities said they were short of money and so decided to charge each resident 30 euros per month.
Arturo Lavorato, who is with the NGO AfriCalabria, said: “They don’t take action for the long term. The only way they have is in creating Solidarity Village, a huge and expensive centre, far from the towns, that will be soon a ghetto. It cost a fortune. With the same money, you could restore some houses in this area.”
Until next June, when the camps are supposed to be taken down, African workers in Rosarno have to take care of themselves. The only service is provided by the non-governmental organisation called Emergency. It has a health care bus on site. The NGO, which also operates in Afghanistan and Iraq, says it’s clear that Rosarno is one of many places in Europe populated by institutionally invisible workers, who Europe pretends not to see.
Roberto, a worker with ‘Emergency’, said: “There is a sort of army working the marginal jobs in agriculture. Before Rosarno we were in Foggia and in Sicily, following the seasonal harvests, like for tomatoes in Campania. When that’s over, we come to Calabria.”
Invisible workers don’t vote.