Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Slaving in southern Italy

Last week’s riots in the Calabrese town Rosarno highlight south Italian problems with illegal immigrants working as farm hands under slave like conditions.

Already in early January 2007, the undercover journalist Fabrizio Gatti received the prestigious Premio Guiseppe Fava prize for his articles in L’espresso called ‘Io schiavo in Puglia’, where he described a labour system of organized exploitation, intimidation, suppression and terror. Since then nothing much has happened. At least it is obvious to anyone travelling in Mezzogiorno on a regular basis that the problem still exists.

It is increasingly rare to see Italians working the fields. The gangs harvesting tomatoes, watermelons, olives, oranges and other labour intensive crops are alternately from Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe, depending on the connections of the people who hire them. Their status as illegal immigrants leave them unprotected from the law and labour agreements. And they live under abominable conditions in camps or in closed down factories, as can be seen from their characteristic packed-up vehicles parked outside.

Seen from an Italian farmer’s point of view agriculture is unprofitable without access to cheap labour and subsidies (for a detailed outline of the economy behind the problems see eg. La Stampa: Le arance di carta di Rosarno). While small farms used to be family enterprises, farmers who are getting on in years complain that their sons and the young people in general find it too hard to work the land for a living. Younger generations are neither willing nor able to lend a hand during harvest, which means that the farmers come to depend on hired help. And as long as there is an illegal work force willing to do the job at cut-down rates, the basic structures will not change. It is sad, really.

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