Exploitation and trade unions on Southern Italy’s tomato fields

Today, we can find cheap tomatoes from Italy in almost every supermarket and weekly farmers' market in Europe. However, the country of origin indicated on the vegetable crates or cans of tomatoes says nothing about the real living and working conditions on the fields and in the greenhouses of Southern Italy. But the price does, since it is the result of price pressure on producers and farmers and reflects the hard work of the exploited people who often work and live under slave-like conditions.

The issue of migration to industrial and agricultural regions has become an increasingly important topic in Italy during the past years, particularly in the context of the economic crisis, which greatly affects large segments of the population. New labour conflicts have emerged, as concerns about deteriorating living conditions and hostility towards labour migrants mount, fuelled by political propaganda.

Many labourers on the tomato fields come from Sub-Saharan Africa, others from East Europe and Asia. They work hard from early morning till evening in the best of cases, often under unhealthy working conditions, and they are underpaid. And in most cases they lack trade union and social rights. At worst they live in "ghettos" on the fields in Calabria or Apulia, i.e. unofficial settlements without any access to electricity, sanitation, clean water and medical care.

The Foggia ghetto

The ghetto in Foggia in the Apulia region serves as an example. Up to 2,000 people live there in the peak season, in the midst of nothing, far away from the city of Foggia, under conditions that are more reminiscent of the slums in Nairobi or Mumbai than of European residential areas. No one knows exactly how long this ghetto in the middle of Europe exists. It has likely been around for 15 to 20 years according to the opinion of the Union Sindicale de Base (USB) secretary, who is responsible for tomato pickers and, together with a group of other unionists, is involved in the seemingly impossible task of organising local workers.

An informal infrastructure has taken shape in the midst of shanties and trailers, meeting some of the basic needs of the workers who live there. There are food stores, a clothing shop, bars and restaurants. People are too tired to drive the 15 kilometres to the next city to buy groceries after a working day that starts at 4 a.m. and often lasts more than ten hours. A few people in the ghetto may have cars, but insurance is too expensive considering their low wages. While an informal economic structure has formed in the ghetto, a state-funded infrastructure is completely lacking. A few solar panels or generators provide electrical power, but there is no running water. The lack of sanitation is particularly worrying for female residents. The security situation is disastrous – only recently a big fire destroyed large parts of the ghetto and the settlement had been constantly in danger of eviction and was finally relocated.

The red flag

In the midst of this misery, the flag of the USB union flies from the roof of one of the shanties. The union's shack has been used for three years and is the result of the hard work done by trade unionists and activists of the USB's national and regional structures who organised the union activities together with some of the ghetto residents. The union building is their meeting place for discussions and strategic decisions. The first strike was organised in the ghetto, which had been inconceivable until that point. All ghetto residents went on strike in the peak season of 2017. They demanded a solution for acute, real issues such as access to drinking water and decent housing conditions as well as labour protection, health insurance contributions and adherence to regional collective agreements. Political demands included respect and social standards as well as access to funds provided by the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). With this labour struggle, workers achieved that the Apulia region withdrew the constant threats of eviction and secured drinking water supply through a regular supply of water tanks. In addition, they became visible across society, as they acted as an organised group capable of developing and articulating both basic demands as well as complex social and political discourses.

While these achievements are small, the positive effect of the improved living conditions in the ghetto cannot be underestimated. The workers have taken notice of the success they achieve when they band together in their common struggle. They stated that while some aid organisations came to provide residents with food and clothes in the past, this was not sufficient to effect a real improvement of their living conditions. The social discourse was still mainly based on "charity for migrants". According to residents, self-organisation helped to achieve small, real improvements in their daily life. It was particularly important not to be seen as vulnerable migrants, but as a group that fights for its own interests. One of their most important messages – "Liberiamoci dallo sfruttamento e dall'assistenzalismo", a message promoting self-liberation from severe exploitation in an attempt to lose dependence on outside assistance – could be read on a main banner during a demonstration on 12 April.

Anyone leaving the ghetto by way of the unpaved dirt road and looking back to the fluttering flag on the unionists' shack will be reminded of Pasolini's poem:

Alla bandiera rossa

Per chi conosce solo il tuo colore, bandiera rossa,
tu devi realmente esistere, perché lui esista:
chi era coperto di croste è coperto di piaghe,
il bracciante diventa mendicante,  
il napoletano calabrese, il calabrese africano,
l'analfabeta una bufala o un cane.
Chi conosceva appena il tuo colore, bandiera rossa,
sta per non conoscerti più, neanche coi sensi:
tu che già vanti tante glorie borghesi e operaie,
ridiventa straccio, e il più povero ti sventoli.
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, La religione del mio tempo, 1961)

To the red flag

For he who only knows your colour, red flag,
you must really exist, so that he can exist:
he who was covered with scabs is covered with wounds,
the labourer becomes a beggar,
the Neapolitan a Calabrese, the Calabrese an African,
the illiterate a buffalo or dog.
He who hardly knows your color, red flag,
won’t know you much longer, not even with his senses:
you who already boast so many bourgeois and working class glories,
you become a rag again, and the poorest wave you.
(From "Roman Poems", City Lights 1986, tr Ferlinghetti and Valente)

Translation from German by Cornelia Gritzner, editing by David Fenske (lingua*trans*fair).

agriculture, Italy, migration, trade unions