The perennial problem of Italy's agro-mafia

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In this file photo taken on June 16, 2018 in Rome, a demonstrator raises a tomato in the air during a march organized by Italy's USB (Base Union of Trade Unions). -AFP

MILAN - Thousands of exploited workers who are paid a pittance to work in unacceptable conditions: welcome to the dark side of Italy's world famous agriculture, and the shadowy role of the mafia.

Every summer, thousands of migrant workers from Africa but also Bulgaria and Romania, come to pick tomatoes and watermelons under the unforgiving Italian sun.

Around 400,000 farmworkers are exposed to the risk of exploitation, with at least 100,000 in a situation of "extreme vulnerability", according to the Flai-Cgil agricultural union.

The workers are mostly foreign, but they include Italians.

"These people are reduced to slavery" thanks to the role of the "caporalato" (corporal) intermediary, said Jean-Rene Bilongo, head of migration policy and inequalities at Flai-Cgil.

"He's the one who negotiates pay while taking his cut," he added.

"For instance, of the five euros paid for a huge crate of tomatoes, he will only give three euros to the workers."

Agricultural workers have a collective agreement which says they should work 6 hours and 40 minutes per day for 50 euros ($55) a day.

But in fact they work up to 14 hours a day and are paid by the weight of the fruit they pick. For tomatoes that means three or four euros per 350 kilo crate, which means workers earn 20 to 30 euros a day.

"The corporals make them pay five euros to bring them to the fields, and then back again, they have to pay 3.50 euros for water and a sandwich, it's extortion," said Angelo Cleopazzo, vice-president of the association Diritti a Sud (Rights in the South), based in Nardo.

Many of the workers live in shantytowns in the middle of the countryside that resemble ghettos, and are victims of physical and sexual violence.

"It's inhumane," said the Flai-Cgil's Bilongo.

Their extreme vulnerability often prevents the workers from going to the authorities to report abuse.

Nevertheless, in August 2018, hundreds of farm workers protested in Foggia, in Puglia on Italy's "heel", after 16 of them were killed in a traffic accident.

Previous summers saw several other workers dying in the fields, worked to death at the height of summer.

Police and judges try to enforce the law, including with a 2016 measure that targeted the "corporals".

Employers were required to do more for their workers, such as providing transport to and from the fields, reduce dependence on "corporals".

But Bilongo said that the law is not being fully applied when it comes to such preventative measures and "there is lots of resistance".

Flai-Cgil and farmers' union Coldiretti blame supermarket chains.

"They have a lot of responsibility because the impose very low prices," said Cleopazzo.

He added the mafia is also involved and the authorities turn a blind eye.

This "agro-mafia" has a finger in everything from production to transport and distribution, according to the Coldiretti.

Their slice of the agricultural pie rose 12.4 percent in 2018 to some 24.5 billion euros, it has estimated.

Some local initiatives are trying to change practices.

Geol is a collective of cooperatives in Calabria which since 2003 has helped farmworkers get more money for what they pick and resist organized crime.

SfruttaZero (Zero exploitation) has since 2015 produced its own tomato sauce without chemicals and with regular contracts for around 20 workers, who are paid by the hour and given free transport, sandwiches and water.

The company sells its jars of tomatoes for three to four euros instead of the usual 90 euro cents in supermarkets.

They have no problem selling their entire stock, with consumers increasingly sensitive to ethical and environmental costs, said Cleopazzo. -AFP


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