Interviews to: Giuseppe Scifo, CGIL Union Secretary in Ragusa; Andrea Gentile, refugees’ reception worker and MeriodoNews cooperator; Ausilia Cosentini, Proxima cooperative; Zino Pitti, Vittoria’s Human Rights Councilor.
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#OverTheFortress’ journey continues, and this time our caravan’s crew turned its attention to a terrible and widespread phenomenon: labour exploitation that is often connected to ‘caporalato’ (gang master system in which people, usually migrants, are illegally recruited for agricultural labour with little or no pay and slavery-like conditions). This is an evil that, as documented by Meltingpot and in the reports of the last months, counts between 300 and 500 thousand people in the South of Italy alone.
We went to Cassabile, a village of 6000 inhabitants in the municipality of Siracusa. Some people have heard rumour about a ghetto just a few kilometres away from their town, but the majority are unaware of its existence. We took a dirt road and after a little while, we could already see a few shacks near an abandoned farmhouse. We stopped and met Sharaf, who showed us the rest of the ghetto. They call it Hotel Sudan, because of the origin of its inhabitants. We met about 10 of them, but during the summer there are more than 300 people living here. Sharaf showed us his home, a small shack with a bed, a tiny table, a gas cooker, a few clothes and dishes. Hotel Sudan is formed by and old, crumbling farmhouse, where the workers have created some common spaces, a kitchen and a living room very different from the ones in our homes, and several small houses made out of wood, steel and plastic sheets. Sharaf said he has been living here for 4 years. When we asked how much you could make by working 10 hours a day in the countryside, he answered “about 5-6 euros per hour”. It is very hard to believe him. We know from other sources that some people earn around 30-35 euros per day, which makes little more than 3 euros an hour. Sharaf would not be the first to lie about the working conditions in the fields, which are protected by a widespread code of silence. It has to be noted that the role of the ‘caporale’ can be played both by Italians and migrants. These people obviously have no interest in reporting the terrible working conditions. However, after visiting the Cassabile ghetto, we have no doubts about the hardships one must face while living here.
In Vittoria, instead, the farm labour is stable and not just seasonal. In fact, the area is characterised by greenhouse cultivation, and therefore lasts all year. We were not prepared for what we saw there. These fields are so vast one cannot distinguish their ends. Rounded, white roofs extend to the horizon in every direction and then join the sea, without a sharp break between the blue of the waves and all that white.
The Vittoria area is one of Europe’s biggest fruit and vegetables markets. The cultivation revolves mainly around tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. Giuseppe Scifo, CGIL Union Secretary in Ragusa, told us about the situation in the fields, which he has been following for a long time. There are about 25.000 farm workers in the province of Ragusa, and 40% of them are migrants, mostly Tunisians and Romanians. Here, Eastern-European labour competes with the African one. Because of the nearby ‘hotspots’ (CAS and CARA, large reception centres for asylum seekers), the last few years have seen a surge in the number of Sub-Saharan African people, which has an impact in the downward pressure of farm labourers’ wages. That is because they have board and lodging in the reception centres, so the field owners do not have to worry about that, and can pay them as little as 3 euros per hour. Even though labour exploitation is widespread in these areas, it would be incorrect to consider it as ‘caporalato’: in fact, there is no intermediary between the worker and the field owner, which is a typical feature of ‘caporalato’. Instead, the agricultural companies are directly involved in managing their workforce and know exactly where to look for cheap labour. The working conditions are terrible: during summer the heat inside the greenhouses is unbearable, and workers must maintain uncomfortable positions up to 10 or 11 hours a day. Those who are not living in a reception centre often shelter in old farmhouses near the greenhouses. We heard about the case of the Romanian community, 60% of which is constituted by women. Ausilia Cosentini of Proxima Cooperative told us about their very hard lives. Not only are they exploited in the fields, they are also sexually abused in the farmhouses. Zino Pitti, member of the Human Rights Association, informed us of the high rate of objector physicians in the hospitals of the area: many women who want to have an abortion are obliged to return home or pay high fees to private physicians. Sometimes the doctors who perform abortions in private clinics are the same who defend their right to conscientious objection in public hospitals. This is not the only form of violence migrants are subjected to in this area. Many cases were reported of migrants who have been intentionally run over while walking or cycling on their way to and from work. Again, investigating these cases is very difficult for the widespread code of silence. However, there are some people who dedicate a lot of time and energy to this, like Andrea Gentile, an asylum seekers’ reception worker. He shared with us some very touching stories about his guests, who prefer to remain anonymous due to the high risks that come with public exposure.
As Giovanni - one of our members from Cassibile - said, we believe that it would be important to start associating the excellence of the Italian vegetables market to an excellent respect of workers’ rights. It is no longer acceptable that the great wealth of this countryside is based on the suffering of migrant and Italian workers. The fruit and vegetables of Eastern Sicily end up in the supermarkets managed by large-scale retail companies, which have never implemented denouncement policies against what can be rightly considered 21st century slavery. Yet, the organizations that work ‘in the field’ to abolish the ghettos, have been demanding for years the obligation to use narrative labels and the implementation of transparent policies for the whole agricultural supply chain. An institutional response came on the 19th October 2016 by the Chamber of Deputies, which approved a law “against” the “caporalato” (Ddl Martina-Orlando). The new law is highly repressive against a phenomenon that is not the only “evil” of labour exploitation.