Cheap tomatoes are a product of dire conditions
Paola Totaro – The Weekend Australian
Baah, a tall, broad-shouldered Ghanaian man, is seated in the back of our car, his face a study of disappointment. Outside, a chill wind casts wave-like ripples across a field of nascent corn as a couple of crows wheel and dip in the failing light.
The countryside of Puglia, the region that spans the southeast- ern tip of the Italian peninsula, is best known for its vast groves of ancient olive trees, stands of prickly pears and vineyards bounded by postcard-perfect dry- stone walls.
In summer, the emerald and turquoise beaches along the Adri- atic are a magnet for northern European holidaymakers while the trulli — the traditional, Apuli- an cone-roofed stone huts — have become the new must-have holi- day house for England’s middle classes.
Further inland, on the remote plains at the feet of the Gargano hills, lies an ugly, secret and often violent world, one that 24-year- old Baah and hundreds of thou- sands of stateless migrants like him never imagined could poss- ibly still exist in modern Europe.
“They say there is work in Italy. I came to work, to make a better life. But in Italy people suffer, they work and they work and they do not get paid,” says Baah.
Between the provincial capital, Bari, the town of Foggia and the foothills, large ghettos blot the landscape like cancers, places so dire, so grim, so dirty that when viewed in the context of Puglia’s lyrical countryside, it is difficult not to blink and blink again in an effort to banish it as you would a nightmare.
The people who live in these ghettoes are asylum-seekers, mostly young men from Ghana, Nigeria and myriad sub-Saharan countries as well as increasing numbers from Iraq and Syria.
Under the EU’s so-called Dublin Regulation, a migrant’s coun- try of arrival is responsible for taking fingerprints and registering the asylum application. And while the Italians turn a blind eye to the many who refuse ID or registra- tion so that they can push on for northern Europe, a significant majority remain in Italy to wait for the glacier-slow bureaucracy to process their papers.
With illegal migration now a crime carrying jail sentences and no long-term welfare from the Italian state, migrants in limbo have little choice but to rely on local charities to survive or to find work illegally, making them deeply vulnerable to exploitation.
The biggest of the ghettos, Rignano Garganico, is reached only by a 50km-plus drive along a net- work of potholed country tracks. It is a sprawling shantytown of cardboard and wooden huts held together by a patchwork of misery and flapping plastic.
The ghetto boundaries are delineated by a phalanx of rusty vans used by work gang bosses as mini- buses, their windows painted out to shield their human cargo from prying eyes. Mangy dogs, ribs vis- ible, skulk in the shadows as scrag-gy chickens scratch in the dirt.
During the northern summer, in tomato-picking season, when temperatures hover in the mid-40s, thousands of men converge to sleep and live here, with- out running water, without toilets and without hope.
Outsiders are not just discouraged but chased away by the work gang bosses, known as caporali (the corporals): threats are explicit and our visit leads to a car chase that ends only when we re-enter the autostrada (highway) and a more populated area.
It is estimated that there are at least half a million foreign workers involved in seasonal agriculture in Italy.
Each year, up to 100,000 of the most vulnerable — often migrants who have arrived through Sicily and the tiny island of Lampedusa — are co-opted into this brutal slave-labour system overseen by southern Italian Mafia organisations such as the Neapolitan Camorra and Calabrian ’Ndrangheta.
Agriculture is widely accepted to be the Italian economic sector most scarred by organised crime, enmeshing supply chains all the way from the fields to the supermarket.
Locally known as the caporalato, the system works like a 21st century chain gang to procure and deliver the thousands of workers needed to pick and process fruit and vegetables on behalf of the plethora of agricultural businesses up and down the country.
Processed tomatoes are one of Italy’s leading agricultural and food exports, with five million tonnes, worth more than €1.5 billion ($2.3bn), sold overseas last year.
In Australia, it is estimated that eight out of 10 cans of tomato products come from Italy, favoured both because of provenance and price. Homegrown varieties can cost up to $1.80 a can compared with 80c for the Italian product.
In Australia, prices have been driven up by unpredictable weather, irrigation needs and uncompetitive labour costs. The Italian product has laid siege to the local product for years: despite travelling nearly 18,000 km, the economies of scale of the Italian market (third in the world after the US and China), cheap migrant labour and huge EU subsidies to Italian tomato farmers mean local growers and canneries simply cannot compete.
Australians have developed a deep concern about provenance, starting with coffee beans, and the fact that the tomato business in Italy has been dubbed red gold — and the migrant workers who pick the crops I dannati dell’oro rosso (the damned of the red gold) — must surely be a concern.
The caporali, says Yvan Sagnet, a young Cameroonian who led a revolt of migrant workers in 2011, can make thousands of euros a day while their “slaves” receive just €20 before costs are removed. “They refuse to allow workers to bring food or water,” Sagnet says. “They force them to pay €5 each for transport to the fields and to return to the ghettoes to sleep at night. They sell food, panini for €3.50 and bottles of water for €1.50.
“Often they take workers’ papers, if they have any documents at all, using this as leverage to keep them from fleeing and making them a kind of slave.
“They charge them rent in the ghettoes. They even make them pay for old tyres to burn for heat and warmth in winter.”
Sagnet came to Italy as a student, winning a scholarship to study engineering in Turin. He learned first-hand the horrors of the caporalato when he missed an exam and realised he had to bolster his financial support.
Desperate to earn money and return to his studies, he travelled to the south in 2011 to work in the tomato fields of Nardo, near the city of Lecce.
The working conditions he found were unimaginable — and, he says, remain unchanged: pay is €3.50 for a 75kg box of tomatoes that could take hours to fill. Working days stretched from 3am to 6pm in 40C-plus temperatures without shade or respite. Five hundred men were forced to sleep in fewer than 200 one-man tents. Medical attention was discouraged: a trip to hospital meant paying the gang master for transport.
When the owners of the fields Sagnet was working in decided suddenly to change the way the crop was to be picked — making the work more difficult but offering no extra pay — the young Cameroonian led a revolt and the labour force went on strike.
The courage of the men shone a public spotlight on the nefarious caporalato system, attracting author two books, also works as a high-profile advocate with the Italian General Confederation of Labour union, CGIL. However, he lives with the constant threat of Mafia retribution like his mentor, the bestselling anti-corruption activist and author Roberto Saviano.
The “Ghetto-Ghana”, where 24-year-old Baah lives, consists of a patchwork of squats set up in abandoned sheds and old farm- houses dotted across a vast terrain of fields in the Cerignola area.
Here, a quietly spoken Ghanaian chieftain, who wants only to be known as Alexander, allows our visit and makes clear he wants us to report the plight of his people.
Sagnet, who guides The Weekend Australian throughout this and other ghettos across a 400km radius in Puglia, says the Ghanaians suffer terribly but have been more culturally prepared to collaborate in the battle against the Mafia.
“I left Ghana to work in Libya. Life was very hard at home; there was no work,” Baah tells us, gazing out over the fields. “In Libya there was some work but they always say Italy is good. I came to Sicily from Libya on a boat and stay here three years now. There is no water, there is no place to live that is clean, no toilets. “Italy is not paradise. If I could go back to Libya I would go today. In Libya, when there is work at least they pay.”
Outside one of the old sheds in the Ghana ghetto, Daniel, 40 — but with the lined and tired face of a septuagenarian — mutely shows us his bandaged feet, ulcerated and infected. He had medical paperwork from an Italian non- governmental organisation clinic that suggested amputation may be necessary if daily care, from antibiotics to cleansing, could not be provided. Terrified of the prospect, he has made his home in an old car, penniless and unable to work.
During a telephone call to the doctor who had seen him, The Weekend Australian is told Daniel is just one of too many to count: “The situation is desperate. If they had water, hygienic quarters, toilets, these kind of things would not happen.”
A few kilometres up the road, on an exposed and windy hill, we find another two old sheds. Outside one, a fire has been lit under an ancient, blackened pot and a young man in a green hoodie stands warming his hands.
Antoine, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, welcomes us into a derelict, dark shack with a big smile and says proudly: “I am the only African that likes the cold.” Speaking in his native French, he describes an itinerant life, seeking seasonal picking work throughout Italy.
The three rooms have no electricity, no running water and an earthen hole for a toilet, open to the elements. A series of ancient, stained mattresses on the floor and piled against the walls are testament to the summer months when at least 20 men sleep together in each small room.
Fit and strong at 24, Antoine says he is one of the few who refuses to work with the caporalato: “I don’t want to die on the job. People die here because they risk and push and work and try to fill their containers to make enough money to feed themselves, their families,” he says. “I came to Italy to live and to work, not to die.”
Nearby, in another abandoned shack, an old man and woman sit in silence by a fire. A third, younger woman tells us she is Nigerian and as she speaks in broken English it is clear she is ill, her eyes bright with fever.
“God will provide everything,” he says with a manic smile, pointing at a small box containing a handful of tiny potatoes. Twirling around the room, she waves at a collection of fading photographs.
“I have a daughter called Gift. I love music, I love to sing, I love to dance” she repeats in a singsong voice. Then, just as suddenly, she stops and frowns: “We suffer but what are we to do … kill ourselves?”
As we leave, she opens her arms for an embrace and the heat of her face, in the winter chill, will remain with me.
In summer time, say Italian NGOs, when the labour force is at its height, migrant women move to the ghettos to cook and provide sex for payment. An encounter is said to cost between €5 and €10.
Sagnet says he continuously must battle the assumption that young Africans are used to a life of inhumanity, dirty and unhygienic accommodation, and should therefore be able to tolerate the same conditions in Italy.
“Human dignity should be sacred. The Italian labour camps and the system of work gangs strip workers of the very last traces of humanity,” he says. Pushing further on, Sagnet guides us towards Ginosa on flat plains punctuated by sparse trees. Here we find yet another ghetto, this one populated only by Romanian and Bulgarian workers. Immediately, the air of misery and desperation seems to be dispelled by a raw, palpable fury.
As shelters made with cardboard quiver in the harsh winds and a handful of dirty children play among the rubbish and dirt, our attempt to talk to a few young workers is abruptly ended when a caporale emerges and orders us, shouting, to leave.
Within minutes, the car is surrounded by men wielding pieces of chip board and lumps of firewood and it becomes clear that if we don’t retreat, a beating, or worse, might be in store.
Not too far down the road, another ghetto — this one an avenue of rusty shipping containers — appears in a straight line along the horizon. Fenced with wire, it turns out to be an abandoned military airstrip, a remote desert of concrete but at least equipped with portable toilets and a tap. For Sagnet, the battle to reform the Italian production system is still in its infancy.
A raft of cultural and structural changes is urgently needed — from more efficient processing of work documents for migrants and a restructure of price setting for tomatoes through to the creation of state-monitored systems to transport and house seasonal workers safely.
“All this must be done in Italy. But if nations like Australia that import Italian tomatoes begin to demand proof that they have been picked and produced by people treated with dignity and paid properly, this, too, is hugely important — and will save human lives,” Sagnet says.