Monday, 28 September 2009

Living hell for immigrants in Italy's tomato fields

After crossing half of Africa and surviving a perilous boat trip from Libya in search of a better life in Italy, many immigrants enter into a form of slavery picking tomatoes with living conditions worse than those back home.

RIGNANO GARGANICO, ITALY REUTERS - Every year thousands of immigrants, many of them from Africa, flock to the plantations of southern Italy to eke out a living as seasonal workers picking anything from grapes to olives, tomatoes and oranges.
This army of illegal immigrants certainly could not have imagined the sort of living conditions they would be forced to endure.

Broadly tolerated by authorities because of their role in the economy, they endure long hours of backbreaking labour for as little as 15-20 euros a day and live in squalid makeshift camps without running water or electricity.

The shanty town, known as 'the Ghetto' is where some 600 immigrants live in the countryside near the city of Foggia in Puglia. The area is known as the 'Red Gold Triangle' which produces 35 percent of Italy's tomatoes.

From afar the shanty town resembles a refugee camp in any war-ravaged African country, but the reality is possibly worse.

The economic crisis forced factories in Italy's rich north to shut down or lay off employees, so more migrants than usual -- around 2,000 people -- have come here in search of work.

Rains -- a tomato picker's best friend because the machinery an increasing number of farm owners use to replace manual labour does not work properly on muddy grounds -- have been sparse.

"Here is where I sleep, ten people sleep here," said 24-yr-old Boubacar Bailo from Guinea.

People sleep on bug-infested mattrasses in overcrowded shacks made of cardboard and plastic sheets or in decrepit houses.

"If it's raining they prefer calling us to work rather than the machines, it's shit its only 3 euro for one big crate," Bailo said, adding that this was not living.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which since 2003 has been monitoring the area around Foggia and helping the immigrants get access to basic health services, say more should be done.

"They sleep on the ground on matresses they have picked up on the streets, most of them are rotten and infested with insects." said Doctor Alvise Benelli.

Idle youths in dirty clothes try and sleep or simply stare into the distance at the camps. To eat the immigrants club together to buy a sheep so they can slaughter it themselves and feed more people.

The going rate for illegal tomato pickers is 3.5 euros per "cassone" -- a big plastic crate that, when full, weighs 350 kg. On a lucky day, workers can hope to make as much as 35-40 euros after labouring from dawn to dusk.

But in most cases they will have to pay a cut to the so-called "caporali", intermediaries who select the workforce for the farm owners and make sure the job gets done.

"We just didn't know Italy was like this, we always thought it was a country where you could find a job and do everything like eating and alot of nice things," said illegal immigrant Andrea from Burkina Faso who has been in Italy for several years.

"...But we have seen it is not like that but I can't go back," Andrea said.

This month, the government launched an amnesty for immigrants illegally employed as cleaners or carers for the elderly by Italian families, but that does not apply to those bringing tomatoes from the fields to their plates.

Most of them are trapped, with no papers and barely any income they are forced to travel up and down the country following the harvest, with little hope of ever being able to afford to return home.