With a death toll of thousands, Italy’s agricultural sector resembles a warzone

With a death toll of thousands, Italy's agricultural sector resembles a warzone

Tomato-harvesting in the countryside of Foggia in southern Italy.

(Antonello Mangano)

Soumayla Sacko was a 29-year-old trade unionist from Mali who had been helping to organise migrant agricultural workers like himself for the Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) for two years. Like most seasonal farm labourers, Sacko lived and worked in appalling conditions, a resident of the notorious tendopoli (tent city) of San Ferdinando in Rosarno in Italy’s southern region of Calabria. On 2 June 2018, he was with two co-workers collecting old metal sheets from an abandoned factory to put towards their barely-habitable homes when a local man drove up and shot the men four times with a rifle. Sacko was shot in the head and died shortly after arriving at the hospital. One of his friends was shot in the leg but managed to escape and later helped identify the culprit.

Agriculture contributes an estimated 2.2 per cent to Italy’s US$1.859 trillion GDP, but the tens of thousands of agricultural labourers like Sacko who produce this wealth see very little of it. Workers – particularly migrant workers who are often undocumented and are thus easily exploitable – can earn as little as €2.50 an hour picking produce such as tomatoes and citrus fruits that are then sold around Europe. But there is an even worse statistic: Sacko is one of the more than 1500 people that have died while working in Italy’s agricultural sector over the past six years.

From north to south Italy, in Sicily, Campania, Apulia and even the prosperous north-western region of Piedmont, labourers are dying in such high numbers that it resembles low-level warfare.

Malians, Italians, Romanians, Indians and Nigerians are all victims. The reasons for these deaths range from fatigue to car accidents to industrial accidents to violence. You can read the stories in the local news, but they are quickly forgotten. As these men and women are often employed by the caporalato (gangmasters) who run a system of minimum payment and maximum exploitation, the victims of labour exploitation are often unrecorded by official statistics.

Some migrants burn to death in the fires that occasionally rip through their shacks, built from plastic, paper and other bits of scrap. On the night of 27 January 2018, 2,000 people ran as fast as they could to escape the flames that suddenly erupted at their squatter camp in Rosarno. Twenty-six-year-old Nigerian Becky Moses never made it out of her home. She died amidst the flames. Her mortal remains were put in a zinc coffin and she was taken away between the tears of the other women and the astonished looks of men.

Some migrants die from the cold or from poor health. Dominic Man Addiah, for example, escaped war in Liberia and found death in Europe. He slept in a car on the edge of Rosarno’s ghetto and froze to death in 2013. Another farmhand known as Marcus was born in the Gambia and travelled the world before arriving in the Calabrian countryside. He was ill, presumably from pneumonia, and died at the end of 2010 in a local hospice, assisted by volunteers who had to deliver the sad news to his relatives back home.

Some migrants die at the hands of police. In June 2016, amongst the informal shops selling peanut butter and sachets of painkillers in San Ferdinando, a group of six policemen and carabinieri (military police) came to stop a fight. They found Sekine Triore, a 26-year-old from Mali who was brandishing a knife while “in a state of psychophysical alteration,” according to police reports. A police officer attempted to apprehend Triore. Triore hit the officer in his eye. An officer shot Triore in the abdomen and he died shortly after.

The modern face of Italy’s gangmasters

But it is not just migrants from Africa and the Global South who are dying. Migrant workers from Europe and even workers from Italy are also victims.

Between Rossano and Corigliano, in the eastern part of Calabria, every winter over 10,000 eastern Europeans workers arrive for the clementine harvest. In November 2012, a van carrying five Romanian workers returning from the fields and the landowner that employed them crashed into a diesel train. Two workers survived the accident, but everyone else in the van died instantly. Immediately after the crash, men from two local funeral firms arrived at the crash site and started to fight over the bodies. As they kicked and punched each other, one of the corpses even rolled away. For the relatives of the deceased, this distressing incident was just the beginning of their long grief: Italian state wouldn’t give them any compensation.

Paola Clemente was an Apulian farmhand. According to the labour register she worked in “business and management consulting” but in reality she worked from dawn until dusk removing small grapes from bunches in order to boost their growth.

She was not hired directly, but outsourced by an interim agency – this is the modern face of Italy’s gangmasters. Every night, at the age of 49, Paola got up at 3am to travel 59 kilometres by bus to begin her work for a daily wage of just €30 – €22 less than the provincial minimum wage. She did one of the hardest and worst paid jobs in agriculture; grape cleaners work all day in hot temperatures, and in Apulia, this work is traditionally done by women because landowners value their ‘delicate hands’.

On the day she died, Paola started experiencing severe cervical pain, which is a common complaint amongst the women who do this job. Suddenly she fell to the ground with her eyes wide open. Thirty minutes later her body was taken away in a hearse.

Disparity in numbers

But how many people have actually died working in Italy’s fields? About 1500 people over the past six years, according to two sources: the Istituto nazionale Assicurazione Infortuni sul Lavoro (INAIL, or the National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work) and the Independent Observatory of Bologna, which was set up by retired metalworker Carlo Soricelli in 2008 to record all work-related deaths.

It’s difficult to get a true sense of the scale of the problem just by looking at the official numbers. Let’s consider the year 2015, for example. According to the INAIL, only 13 people died in agricultural labour camps in Italy. But where are the names of Stefan, Paola, Mohamed, Zakaria, Vasile, Archangel, Ioan and all the other workers that we know died that year? We cannot find them in official logbooks, under the heading ‘agriculture’, but they are instead amongst the 336 deaths not assigned to a category. Moreover, the Labour Inspectorate – the Italian public office that checks the regularity of workplaces – reports that in agriculture 50 per cent of the companies inspected are irregular.

Meanwhile, according to Soricelli’s records for 2015, 518 people died at work, 37 per cent in agriculture. “INAIL considers only insured people, excluding therefore workers with VAT registrations, artisans, freelancers and all others who have a different insurance,” Soricelli tells Equal Times as a means of explaining the disparity in the figures. The Observatory also includes in its statistics, all accidents in itinere, i.e. on the way to and from the workplace.

It is worth noting that both in terms of the official and unofficial data, the highest number of workplace deaths occur amongst Italian workers. Even looking at the ‘undeclared work’ segment for 2015, INAIL reveals that 272 of the 336 workers who died were Italian (81 per cent), followed by Romanians (27 cases) and third, at a great distance, are the nine Indians nationals who lost their lives while working in Italy that year.

Italian agriculture is characterised by illegality, severe exploitation and a lack of protection from state institutions. The high number of workplace deaths in this sector is a direct consequence of this context. In order to protect agricultural workers in Italy, a number of remedial measures urgently need to be taken: corporations need to take responsibility for the exploitation of labour that takes place throughout the agri-food supply chain; trade unions need to be empowered to help and protect all workers, particularly migrant labourers; and more needs to be done to develop consumer awareness about the exploitation of labour in agriculture to ensure the advancement of fair trade products.