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Exploitation in the agriculture sector: the case of Rosarno, Calabria

A revolt by hundreds of migrant workers against police and locals in the Calabrian town of Rosarno in 2010 resulted in the police launching ‘Operazione Migrantes’ (Court of Palmi 2010). The revolt was a reaction to the shooting and wounding by local youths of two African fruit pickers. The revolt received wide media coverage (Economist 2010). The result of the investigation following the clashes led to the arrest of thirty people including local farm owners and gangmasters accused of conspiracy to exploit irregular labour and fraud. The prosecution was made possible by the testimony of around 15 immigrants who were working on the plain of Gioia Tauro. Law enforcement officers discovered an effective system of recruitment and forced labour across the whole of the plain, particularly during the orange harvest (Court of Palmi 2010).

The judicial proceedings demonstrate a high level of coercion and intimidation. None of those who testified came forward of their own volition, but rather became witnesses only after having been directly questioned by police. In particular, the proceedings indicate that the

Nigerians and Ghanaians involved spoke about their living and working conditions hesitantly and with trepidation, reporting that they lived in very precarious conditions, had been threatened and warned not to speak of the conditions under which they were forced to live and work. Police sources describe their stories as ‘common to all African irregular migrants, consisting of poverty, and exploitation on the part of landowners and gangmasters’ (Court of Palmi 2010: 368). Specifically, the statements of two Nigerian workers describe how they had been directed towards farm work two years previously by fellow Nigerians. The recruitment practices are not reported, but a detailed description of their working days, which were always the same, is given. Every morning at 6.30am they got on to a truck with an Italian driver together with other Africans to be transported to the fields. The working day started at 7am and finished at 5pm. At the end of the day they were taken back to their accommodation on the same truck which picked them up in the morning. The work was generally done in teams of 5 to 7 or 10 to 15 workers. In the field they were not equipped with gloves or protective headgear as their safety was not a concern. As a result of this lack of protection, one of the two individuals questioned had a finger on his left hand permanently disabled. Another worker testified how they were forced to work without food and in bad weather. A police source reports that ‘lunch breaks were never taken and the pickers ate only oranges’ (Court of Palmi 2010: 373).

Agricultural landowners in Rosarno have adopted a business strategy of reducing labour costs by using the services of gangmasters. It is the gangmasters who control the labour force. Under their direction, workers have to harvest in all weather conditions and live in inhumane conditions. The workers usually do not meet their employers, only intermediaries. Levels of intermediation are twofold, and sometimes threefold: usually there is one Italian gangmaster who monitors the overall process and deals with the owner of the land, and one or more non-Italian gangmaster, known as a ‘caponero’, who recruits and controls the workforce of their own ethnicity, staying with them all day. Workers’ accounts reveal, for example, that for them a Nigerian ‘caponero’ was responsible for paying daily wages on behalf of the owner. He paid the workers €25 a day and kept €3 per worker for himself for ‘transport costs’. The workers were aware that he received additional pay from the owner, although he only transported the workers and never worked in the fields (Court of Palmi 2010: 375).

Gangmasters are described in the judicial proceedings as men willing to use intimidation to impose exploitative conditions on the workers. Any worker who tries to rebel is threatened with death and often physically assaulted. Moreover, at the gangmasters discretion, daily wages can be withheld. One worker reports that ‘if we had rebelled, we would have been driven away without being paid’ (Court of Palmi 2010: 383). In some cases, gangmasters provided counterfeit documentation to cover for the workers’ irregular status. Promises by gangmasters to arrange residence permits for irregular migrants are also used as a means of coercion, the promises are used to induce compliance with the exploitative conditions, but the promise of arranging residence permits is never kept. In addition, the investigation discovered systematic social security fraud whereby local Italian workers were, on paper, declared as the labour hired to pick the fruit and their national insurance contributions paid, whilst in reality the migrant workers did the work for a meagre daily wage paid ‘cash- in-hand’. The local labourers would then claim unemployment benefit.

One year after the trial, in February 2012, Amnesty International returned to the area to find at least a thousand migrant workers still employed during the orange-picking season, reporting that ‘while the housing available to migrant workers had improved to some extent, thanks to the involvement of local authorities and pressure from civil society, the circumstances of their employment had not improved’ (Amnesty International 2012: 22). Ninety percent of the migrant fruit pickers had no contract and 24 percent had found their job through a gangmaster. According to another NGO, the men were mainly from sub-Saharan Africa (22 percent from Mali; 15 percent from Senegal; 13 percent from Guinea; and 12 percent from Cote d’Ivoire); the average age being 29; and 72 percent of them did not have a residence permit. Moreover, the NGO discovered that over 80 percent of the immigrant population in Rosario and its surroundings had made application for international protection (Rete Radici Integration Foundation 2012).

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