Exploited in the southern sun

This feature was originally published in Foreign Policy.

FOGGIA, Italy — Clustered around abandoned farmhouses outside Foggia, deep in the rural heel of Italy, a campsite of wood and cardboard shanties has become home to more than 1,000 people. Despite the destitution, there’s a cheery atmosphere here this summer evening. Afrobeat music booms through the air. An elderly man chops hunks of meat and fires up a grill, filling the air with the smell of spices and smoke.

The day’s heat is still overwhelming, and many of the migrants living in the camp, Africans who work as field hands nearby, are coated in a dry dust. A number of them stop at the entrance to the defunct farm where their makeshift home is staged. They wash using its still-functioning irrigation system, which spews a dubious concoction of chemicals and water. Afterward, some of them cluster around a stall — a laptop and scanner on a plastic table under the shade of an umbrella — set up by local trade unionists.

The Ghetto di Foggia, as the campsite is called, is 15 miles from the nearest town. It has two bars, a restaurant, and even a discothèque, all fashioned out of wood and cardboard. Those amenities do little to soften the squalor, however: The camp’s residents live in the shadow of an accumulating rubbish dump, and overflowing portable toilets provide a constant stench.

Most of those living here made a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, packed with hundreds of people on boats designed to accommodate no more than a dozen. (Illustrating the trip’s dangers, earlier this summer, 45 people fleeing North Africa suffocated to death after being crushed in the hold of a fishing boat.)

The union is here to help people register for jobs, but many in this collection of refugees and migrants are without documents or have had their asylum applications rejected, so they can’t work legally.

To survive, they work under the table, often for criminally low wages.Their employment is facilitated by a feared network of intermediaries, known as the Caporali, or “corporals.”

Seydou, from West Africa, is one of those who could not convince the Italian asylum board he was really in danger back in his home country. He says he just spent 14 hours picking zucchini in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit and that he was paid 15 euros for his trouble — far below the 50 euro minimum daily wage, set by the government, for agriculture in Foggia. Local unions say that there are thousands of others like Seydou who work excessive hours for a pittance.

Seydou is at the bottom of the Italian food-production chain. His bosses — the Caporali — act as gang masters. Many of them are migrants themselves, but over the years since their arrival in Italy, they have established contacts among landowners and law enforcement and have managed to purchase vehicles. They charge other, recent migrants for transport to the fields where they work and take a sizable cut of Seydou’s and others’ pitifully low wages.

Migrants kowtow to the Caporali for fear of having their income cut off. “The Caporali are the kings of slaves,” says Daniele Calamita, secretary-general of Foggia’s agricultural union. “They control everything. They don’t have to resort to violence when they dominate them [migrants] psychologically.”

Calamita is an earnest socialist; he even has Che Guevara’s face tattooed on his shoulder. The Caporali and unscrupulous employers, he explains, undermine labor laws that unions have worked hard to have the government put in place. “Often there is no contract, but if [the Caporali] need to show a contract, it will always show far lower than the real number of hours worked,” Calamita says.

The union has been fighting an uphill struggle to ensure that migrants are paid fair wages and are able to live in decent conditions. They help with residence permits, lobbying the Italian authorities, and registering migrants on official government lists from which employers can select workers (that’s why the stall is in the camp). But so far, Italian agriculture’s voracious appetite for cheap labor has prevailed. Local media have reported that, as of Aug. 13, not a single worker had been selected from more than 1,000 registered on the Foggia list since the start of July. Employers balk at the prospect of paying taxes and social security if they take the legal route.

Whenever people — especially migrants — are desperate to work, employers and intermediaries are more than willing to take them on for far less than the mandatory minimum wage. And with millions of hectares of land to police, Italy’s rural industries are among the hardest to regulate. Forbes reports that as much as 17 percent of Italy’s GDP is accounted for by underground transactions, which are most common in the agricultural sector.

The Italian government has yet to make a concerted effort to eradicate the Caporali system. “The Caporali have existed in the agriculture industry for centuries,” says Calamita.

“This might look like a migrant problem, but it is very much an Italian one.”

UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, currently counts some 92,000 refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless persons in Italy. With thousands more streaming to Europe’s southern shores as they flee conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, this “Italian problem” could become a full-blown crisis if left unchecked.

As the heat of the day finally begins to break, the workers drift away from the stall. Without government intervention — cracking down on those profiting from the corrupt system and incentivizing employers to take workers from the official list — the residents of Ghetto di Foggia are staying put. Seydou heads back to his shack to get some sleep, winding his way past the portable toilets and through trash strewn across his doorstep. Tomorrow he faces another long, hard day.

This feature was originally published in Foreign Policy.