By Matteo Congregalli
For Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian migrant working in a tomato field in Puglia, Italy, the last straw came on a hot summer’s day in 2011. The harvest was in full swing. Teams of undocumented labourers were busy working at 42°C with no access to water or toilet facilities.
Then Ahmed, one of the people working on Sagnet’s team, collapsed with exhaustion. “You are not allowed to die here, friend,” said Adem Meki, a Sudanese gang master, as Ahmed pleaded to be taken to hospital.
Sagnet’s stepped in to help Ahmed. Suddenly, a fight with Meki ensued. The two men fell to the ground and had to be separated, battered and bruised. Eventually, Ahmed was forced to pay Meki €20 to be taken to the nearest hospital. Everybody went back to work; but what Meki did not know was that Yvan was about to lead the first migrant agricultural workers’ strike in Italian history.
Italian exports of fruit and vegetables have now reached €36 million, but in recent decades retail prices for agricultural products have plummeted. As a result, farmers have to find ways to slash production costs to stay competitive and make a profit.
This, paired with deregulation, has resulted in droves of massively underpaid foreign labourers employed by middlemen known as caporali, or gang masters, working on behalf of local farmers.
“Caporalato [gang mastering] is a system of oppression that hits the most vulnerable segments of society: Italian women and foreign migrants from Africa or eastern Europe,” says Sagnet during a talk he is giving to a class of 15-year-olds in Parma, northern Italy.
“Ultra-liberalism generates injustice,” he continues. “If a farmer is forced to sell a kilogram of tomatoes for a few cents of a euro, he will be forced to pay workers nothing.”
Ghettoes and gang mastersSagnet, 32, is now a full-time activist working to end extreme exploitation in the agricultural sector. “What my companions and I endured was slavery. That’s when you are not considered a person anymore and you’ve been rendered a thing.”
When Sagnet first arrived in Italy in 2008, from Douala, Cameroon, he had dreams of becoming a footballer but he eventually decided to study engineering. When his university suddenly pulled his scholarship in 2011, Sagnet decided to pick fruit and vegetables in southern Italy in order to earn the money to continue his studies.
According to the Italian trade union confederation FLAI-CGIL around 420,000 workers are illegally employed and exploited in intensive farming across the country. Workers are employed on a seasonal basis: summer means being in Puglia, where plants are heavy with plump, red tomatoes; during the winter they move to Calabria to harvest oranges; and in the spring, workers move to Pachino, Sicily, to pick cherry tomatoes.
This constant movement requires temporary accommodation. As a result, migrant agricultural workers are housed in metal shacks in rural “ghettoes” where as many as 3,000 people can be housed.
The ghetto of Nardò, between Lecce and Gallipoli in the Apulia region, is not far from the beach resorts that are packed with tourists during the summer. There, a whole parallel economy is run by the caporali.
“Are you hungry? You go to their ‘restaurant’ [usually a hut serving food]. Are you thirsty? You buy a bottle of water from the gang master for 50 cents. Do you need a girl? You pay the prostitutes the gang master is pimping,” explains Sagnet.
The labourers would work everyday from the crack of dawn until the late afternoon in extreme heat for a daily wage of around €20. Sagnet says the workers would usually shake branches of tomatoes into large three-ton containers for as little as €3.50 per container.
However, the day Ahmed fell ill, Meki – the gang master –had told his workers to handpick the tomatoes one by one so that they would be in pristine condition for ready-made, single portion salads. The work is much harder so they labourers wanted better pay.
After Ahmed was taken to hospital, Sagnet rounded up his companions and planned the strike. “The following morning, we did not look for a gang master that could hire us for the day. Other workers were looking at us in disbelief,” he says. However, it did not take long before other workers in Nardò joined in, with Yvan and 13 others coordinating the strike.
A workers’ uprisingAccording to FLAI-CGIL, tomatoes are the ‘red gold’ of Italy. The turnover linked to the caporalato is around €30 million. All of a sudden, that very profitable red gold was rotting under the sun. But, Sagnet realised that the strike would need to get wider attention and so the strikers dragged rocks and large chunks of wood onto a nearby motorway, causing tailbacks of almost six kilometres. Incredulous tourists brought police; the police brought the national media. Italians were slowly waking up to the human price being paid for the food they were consuming.
The Nardò uprising wasn’t the first: in 2010, Nigerian migrant labourers in the Calabria region rioted against the local mafia who had forced them into slavery-like conditions during the harvest of oranges used by Coca Cola Company and San Pellegrino.
After days of unrest in the backyard of the ’Ndràngheta – one of the bloodiest mobs in Italy – the police moved in and relocated thousands of workers to detention centres, shutting down the migrants’ requests for decent work.
Luckily, things fared better for the migrant workers of Nardò. “At one point, the farmers came begging for us to pick their tomatoes up for them,” Sagnet says. “They prepared contracts for nearly half of the workers of the ghetto.”
That same year, the Anti-Mafia District Attorney Office of Lecce requested 22 arrests and the opening of an investigation. Authorities uncovered a system of human trafficking between North Africa and southern Italy engineered to provide gang masters with an easily exploitable workforce.
Sagnet was the key witness in the so-called Saber trial that followed – named after Saber Ben Mahmoud Jelassi one of the kingpins in charge of hiring the migrant workers. Today, Sagnet can’t reveal where he lives, in fear of retribution.
New legislation, new solutions?Over the past few years, the migrant crisis has swollen the ranks of the army of undocumented farm workers. Nearly 20,600 people landed in Italy in the first three months of 2017 alone.
While waiting for asylum or papers, agricultural work is often the only way to make a living. “I can’t comment on what the people we help do when they are outside our walls,” a civil servant from a government-run refugee project in Calabria tells Equal Times. “But it is so common for our people to work in the fields for a few euros. We simply turn a blind eye.”
Giovanni Mininni, the national secretary of FLAI-CGIL, is one of the people behind the most recent legislation on gang mastering that was passed at the end of 2016.
“The older law passed in 2011 allowed gang masters to be tried according to criminal law. But it left the farmers that hired the gang masters untouched,” Mininni explains. The new law aims at holding farmers accountable too. If found guilty of having employed an illegal workforce, they could face up to six years in prison.
Groups of entrepreneurs have publicly opposed the new legislation arguing it damages their profits and the industry. Some have argued that gang mastering is the only way to stay competitive in today’s market.
Sagnet welcomes the new law say it is only part of the solution. “The real problem is the multinationals, the big supermarket chains. They decide the retail prices. That has a ripple effect on the whole supply chain. If the farmers have to sell a kilogram of tomatoes for 80 cents, the gang masters are going to have to hire workers for nothing. The real solution is an ethical way of producing. Fair trade food can become an affordable norm,” he says.
Mbaye Ndiaye is the Senegalese founder of Ghetto Out/Casa Sankara, a local organisation in Apulia committed to moving workers out of the ghettoes and into its farmhouse. There, Mbaye helps migrants find decent work with local farmers who are willing to pay fair wages.
The 200 workers he is currently hosting come from Rignano Garganico, where 3,000 migrants used to live. Their ghetto was evacuated this March following a huge fire that killed two workers at the end of 2016.
“We want to offer an alternative,” Ndiaye explains, talking about the organisation he launched in 2016. “We are talking to farmers and entrepreneurs to work together on this year’s harvest.”
Speaking of alternatives, Sagnet, who was knighted by the Italian President Sergio Mattarella in February 2017 for his work to end modern-day slavery in agricultural supply chains, is taking the fight a step further.
“In Italy, the paradox is that our food has to be quality-certified but we don’t care if it is ethical or not,” he says, speaking of NO-CAP – or No to Caporalato – a European body Sagnet is launching to certify produce as slavery-free. “It is a matter of having a label certifying a product has been ethically produced. That way, people can make a choice.”
The tomato and orange harvests of 2017 will be the moment of truth for the new anti-gang mastering measures and for experiments such as NOCAP and Casa Sankara. With migrants landing in Sicily almost every day, as well as Bulgarian, Romanian and Italian workers desperate for work, gang masters won’t be short of bodies to hire. The real challenge is to see whether local authorities have the resources – and the will – to enforce the laws designed to protect some of Italy’s most exploited workers.
Published on Equal Times' website on May 10, 2017.