A Gambia boy is sitting on an old swivel chair. We are in the middle of a slum near Mazara del Vallo, between cardboard boxes and sheet metal. “One day I will have my chance,” he says. But now he’s waiting for an answer to the asylum request and for someone who call him for olives’ harvest.
Like him, hundreds of immigrants work in countryside all over Italy. In Tuscany for the harvest of Chianti wine, in Calabria for Sila’s potatoes, everywhere in Sicily picking tomatoes, oranges and olives. At least three judicial investigations reveal stories of immigrants arrived in Italy to seek protection and then enslaved. Dozens of testimonies reveal a very large phenomenon. In the meanwhile, public opinion hastened them as parasites who “eat and sleep in five-star hotels”.
“Cas” (Extraordinary Reception Centres) are emergency facilities, managed by private citizens but authorized and controlled by the prefectures, i.e. by the Italian government. A “Cas” can be a small hotel, a centre for elderly people reused for hosting immigrants or a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The length of stay – decided by the State bureaucracy – ranges from six months to four years. The migrant waits with an asylum application in his pocket. But in the meantime, what does he do?
“Welcome to the City of Salt and Reception”. At the entrance of Trapani, the road signs recall the past and the present business. In the province, there are about thirty Cas. In a predominantly agricultural area, expectant migrants are a boon from the sky for local depressed agriculture. In Alcamo, during the harvest, many people sleep in a downtown square. Camped with sleeping bags, they cook on the asphalt while next local elderly people play cards. Tomorrow in the morning they will line up to be loaded on vans.
In Sicily, there is a stratification. Tunisians with grey hair, since twenty years in Italy, are joined by young sub-Saharan people who landed since few months. “They’re Cas people,” people say. Those young Africans who do not speak Italian are frightening competitors. “The State feed you and give a bed,” the field masters say. And then they pay as little as possible.
Fifty euros to Tunisians, 25 to Romanians, from 15 to 7 for Cas guests. In Vittoria, province of Ragusa, the wage of a day labourer has fallen. In the countryside, at sunset, dozens of African bikers return from the greenhouses to the reception centres. They have few coins in the pockets, it’s the miserable compensation for ten hours of work.
The gangmaster system (“caporalato”) is a novelty in many of these places. Three months ago, police arrested some businessmen, cause they used severely exploited workers: 19 asylum seekers, two Tunisians and five Romanians. The latter lived in dilapidated farmhouses near the farm, the others were back to sleep at Cas. This is one of the first applications of the “anti-caporalato” law, which punishes serious exploitation at work.
Like a cage
The testimonies bounce from one corner to the other of the island. “Borderline Sicily” Association is monitoring the reception system. For example, reports about an elderly centre in Canicattì that added to social reason “hospitality of refugees”. “At 4.30 am we go to the meeting point and wait for the farmer. They arrive with a pickup or a truck and choose between Italian, African and Romanian adults. But also so many young people, who do not lose themselves in the depression of inactivity, and find themselves exploited for a few euros in their pockets.”
In the centre there are people “staged” for three years, newcomers escaped from minors communities, migrants in transit to other centres.
In Mineo, near Catania, there is a mega-structure that currently hosts about 3,000 people. The centre is an island in a sea of orange groves. The citrus season is about to begin. Everyone needs arms. Unscrupulous bosses choose cheap ones.
“I bought a bicycle for 25 euros. Every day, I wait till 8 am. It’s the opening time, you can not exit earlier. We are behind the gates, as in the cage,” says FilieraSporca 2016 report. “Then the doors open and we look for a master. ”
Sheep and potatoes
How leaders of reception centres behave when they see strange movements around their guests? Some help to denounce. Most of them shake it off. Someone turn himself into a “Caporale”.
This is the case of two Cas in Sila, a highland located in Calabria. It all begins with the denunciation of a migrant, beaten and threatened only because he slows down the harvest. The judiciary intervenes against fourteen people accused of “illegal mediation and labour exploitation”. It was the “Welcome” operation, that dates to last May, the first absolute application of the Anti-Caporalato Act.
An episode reveals the certainty of impunity in the area. During the notification of the measure, one of the farmers continued to give orders to the Africans, complaining to the police for the wasted time (“the strawberries ruin”).
But migrants were exploited twice: in the fields and as a method for obtaining funding. The “35 euros” were all in the pocket of the Italians, which portrayed “integration” activities never carried out. Instead Senegalese, Nigerian and Somalis refugees left the centres at six in the morning to work in potato fields or as shepherds. The compensation? Just over one euro per hour.
The investigation is called “Numbar Dar” (“Village leader”) and dates back to one year ago. It demonstrates that severe exploitation is an issue also in rich Northern Italy countryside.
Among historical farms born in the 1920s, vineyards and hills, Chianti’s farms resorted to the low-cost manpower of the reception centres. The Pakistani gangmaster, Prato’s advisers – who falsified paycheck – and the holders of wineries were the hubs of the system. About 160 migrants have been trapped in the system. They worked up to twelve hours a day for four euros per hour and were often beaten.
On the peak days of grape harvesting, trips from Prato to Tavarnelle Val di Pesa were two per day. Caporali privileged Pakistani compatriots: only they were given food and some water. If they needed more arms, they were also called to work day by day as African asylum seekers, victims of more abuses. The “blacks” did not have the right to drink or to have shoes: they were working on bare feet in the fields.
Across Italy, there are centres managed in a professional manner. But bureaucratic slots have created a dramatic situation. Questura’s documents, examination of the asylum and appeal to the Court may take years. Meanwhile, families in Africa press to receive money. So migrants find in Europe a nightmare, just that one they left.