Shepherd in Licata, an agrarian town in southern Sicily. Photo credit: Yousef Ariel on Unsplash

The controversial, thriving Italian agricultural industry sustained by undocumented migrant workers

The Italian government turns a blind eye as the well-known Sicilian migrant work camp, Campobello di Mazara, burns. Again, this leaves immigrant workers scrambling for legitimacy. 

Italian industries like food production rely heavily on the imports of raw materials. In fact, Italy is one of the European Union’s largest agricultural producers and food processors. Approximately, four percent of the population thrives in the farming industry.

In cases of production, there is a dire want for seasonal and cheap workers. Many times, new and albeit defenseless migrants have a desperate need for any type of job to establish themselves in Italy. Campobello di Mazara is a popular stop. 

A well-known Sicilian migrant labor camp, Campobello di Mazara is an industrial desert hidden among the olive groves. The settlements are composed of mostly Senegalese and Gambians living in makeshift wooden shacks. 

On September 30, 2021, the so-called “ghetto of Campobello” burned down followed by a heated protest. Hundreds of workers lost all their belongings and were left homeless. Unfortunately, a life was lost. 

Cheikh Baye Fall is one of those fortunate enough to flee Campobello. Presently an activist in Palermo, he assembled the “How to build a space to hold? Solidarity with Campobello” campaign following the labor field’s destruction. 

“Even after th[e] tragic [fire], the farmers continued to toil and construct huts whilst everyone turned a blind eye to the tragedy,” Cheik told Ark Republic. As if the situation could not worsen, this is not a first. More than three years ago, the same camp was demolished by local authorities for inhumane living conditions.

. . . .
“Essere migrante non significa essere cattivo. Presidente Musumeci rispettiamo la vita umana,” messaged Cheikh Baye Fall in this Facebook post where he is demonstrating in front of the Assemblea Regionale Siciliana. Translated, he asserts that “Being a migrant does not mean being bad. President [Sebastiano] Musumeci we respect human life.” Photo credit: Baye Fall’s Facebook page

Recent research states about 500,000 migrant laborers in the industry. Importantly, 80 percent of those working without work contracts are foreigners.

After decades, exploitation remains rampant. Predatory employers continue to gather compelling profits incomparable to the amount of work being done. Knowledgeable or even uninformed, workers endure ceaseless hours under exploitative conditions for meager wages, oftentimes.

Richard Braude of the political organization, Arci Porco Rosso, explained the company’s systemic role as complicated. He affirmed, “[M]ost [foriegn laborers] working in agricultural sites such as Campobello [di Mazara] do not have [work] contracts . . . Nonetheless, even if they have them, they are normally very temporary.” 

Fundamentally, Italy’s strict immigration laws—which became even stricter during far-right leader Matteo Salvini’s brief tenure as interior minister from June 2018 to September 2019—prohibit migrants living on Italian soil from working a regular job. 

“We toil relentlessly under the sun and get treated worse than animals. We do not ask for much, just to have humane treatment,” Senegal-born laborer Mikiele Diop affirmed in a teary address regarding the dilemma for immigrants that often exists within the Italian documentation system. He lamented the remorse of the living situations being tougher than his motherland.

He continued, “without documents I cannot get a job, without a job I cannot get documents, calling this system biased would be an understatement.” 

The governmental failure to implement defined, assertive long-term policies contributes to continual protests and assemblies organised by concerned parties. Meanwhile, cooperatives and protests might drive the current Administration to properly address work and immigration regarding the Italian agricultural system.

Cooperatives join the battle

Richard insists that the practice of providing working documents to workers might be deliberate. Some large buyers purchase from vulnerable small farmers who cannot cover taxes. Yet and still, food merchants sell their products to supermarkets that can meet the costs. Adversely, small farmers employ people at very low wages without proper contractual protections to increase their profit margins. 

Hence, the situation fueled some migrant groups to innovate. A collective of West Africans formed a cooperative to protect their agricultural rights in Rome. The Barikamà, or resistance in Bambara, Social Cooperative, promotes social inclusion through the production and sale of organic yogurt as well as vegetables. 

“The formation of [pro-farmer rights] cooperatives ha[ve] been key in helping migrants who work in the agricultural sector to get proper documentation.” Cheikh Diop from Barikama,  told Ark Republic. 

According to Diop, every worker in the cooperative is documented, but they assist those who are not. He confirmed that the government intervened initially, yet later went silent. To better understand its creation, some members participated in the January 2010 Rosarno riots against racism and farm worker exploitation.

Despite obstacles, there have been projects since the introduction of the anti-caporalato law, that prohibits an unlicensed supply of workers to others. Under the law, the middleman hires five or six workers to work on a farm and takes the cut, a sub-letting of sorts.

Until now, there has been government and trade union opposition “against the middle man.”  This is evidenced by funding made available to encourage more ethical practices in the sector. Ultimately, Richard explains that some small temporary interventions can make a few good examples, but do not intervene in the sector. 

These government-funded interventions may involve corruption and the final results might be either good or bad. For instance, Arci Porco Rosso is part of the cooperatives. “We try to help people with accommodation but overall the sector continues to get worse.” 

Conclusively, he states places like Campobello might be the worst in the world. Moreover, the legislative course is a house of cards despite Barikama and Arci Porco Rosso`s success.

African migrants pass the Wall of Protest in Turin, Italy. The message reads, “When there will be no more borders. no one will die to cross them.” Photo credit: Massimo Gea on Twenty20.

Victims, activists lobby the system

Artist Lina Issa invited workers from Campobello in Palermo to revisit what they had lost by building one of their huts with the public. From activists to politicians, even passers-by and market vendors were in attendance to meet the workers.

Conclusively, the “space to hold project” continues to support the Campobello reconstruction through external funding. Still, an outright answer on whether the Mattarella Administration will intervene to discontinue unethical working conditions remains in limbo. 

Although not as effective, efforts to diminish illegal practices are visible. Even if not fully resolved, victims’ aggravation should be anticipated.

Nyawira Mithayo is a Journalism graduate with an interest in community activism.

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