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Deaths of African laborers highlight dire working conditions in Italy

Within three days, 16 migrant laborers were killed in two separate car crashes while returning home from grueling harvesting jobs in Italy's tomato fields. The tragic accidents have shed light on the perils migrants face while employed by Italy's farming industry. 

Franco Cautillo/ANSA/AP
African migrant workers stage a march to protest against their work conditions, following the death of 16 men in two separate road accidents, near Foggia, Italy, on Aug. 8, 2018. Several hundred tomato and fruit pickers marched from the shanty town of San Severo to Foggia as an Italian labor union called for a national strike to raise awareness over the extremely poor working and housing conditions of migrant farm workers in Italy.

A van full of migrant farm laborers slammed into an oncoming truck and somersaulted across the tarmac on Aug. 6, killing 12 of the men packed inside.

Just 48 hours earlier, a near identical crash on a neighboring road killed four other African workers as they too returned home from a grueling day harvesting tomatoes in this sun-roasted corner of southern Italy.

The twin tragedies – so close together and with such a high death toll – have brought into focus the dire working and living conditions imposed on thousands of migrant farmhands whose cut-price labor allows Italy to be one of the biggest fruit and vegetable exporters in Europe.

Ludovico Vaccaro, the magistrate investigating the Aug. 6 deaths, says rampant exploitation of foreign laborers has gone largely unchecked for years. "They should rebel, but they are so poor they have to accept the unacceptable," he told Reuters.

The multiple deaths have come at a time of rising anti-immigration sentiment in Italy, with the newly installed government moving to halt the arrival of migrants to the country and promising mass deportations for those already here.

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Many of those toiling in the fields of Italy's Puglia region have been here for years, no closer to integrating into local society than the day they arrived. 

"I arrived in Italy on Aug. 26, 2013. I haven't created any problem, I don't have a criminal record, I didn't come here for fun. I just want to work," said Sutay Darboe, from Senegal.

"Do Italians have any idea how we are treated? Do they even care?" he said, taking a precious day off work to travel round various hospital morgues looking for the body of a relative of his who died in the Aug. 6 crash.

Mr. Darboe, tall and thin, wearing pink-rimmed glasses, was a distant cousin of Alasanna Darboe, a 28-year-old Gambian. They had worked together in the fields to make money to send home.

"He was a good man. A pious man. He had a wife and two children. They don't know he is dead yet."

Gangmaster 

The other dead came from Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Ghana, and Morocco. There is no suspicion of foul play in the crash, but Mr. Vaccaro believes the men were victims of the so-called "caporalato" system which exploits farm workers across Italy.

Rather than employing pickers directly and putting them on regular contracts, farmers turn to caporali, or gangmasters, who gather the laborers from various camps and ghettos that dot the countryside and drive them to the fields in overcrowded vans.

These middlemen hand out the wages, keeping a handsome share for themselves, migrants say. Several workers said that although they had signed contracts that promised them more than $5.71 an hour, in the end they got between $3.40 and $4. While workers can earn $40, but have to pay $6 for transport.

"It is donkey work. White men check the plants and start yelling if just one tomato is left unpicked," said Njie, a Gambian who only gave his surname.

Puglia labor accords stipulate that employers must pay for transport and say workers should spend a maximum 39 hours a week in the fields for a minimum salary of around $56 a day..

Migrants say they put in much longer hours than that. They also have to bring their own food and water and are allowed only brief breaks even as temperatures soar to 104 degrees F. on the bleak Puglia plains, which lie far from the tourist trail.

Italy introduced a law in 2016 aimed at eliminating the caporalato phenomenon, but it has had little apparent impact.

The prosecutor Vaccaro blamed this failure on a lack of police, labor inspectors, and magistrates to enforce the law, as well as limited cooperation from the victims themselves.

"In order not to lose the chance of work, however bad it may be, the migrants don't talk," he said.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is head of the far-right League, said mafia groups controlled much of the farm labor system in the region.

Farmers' associations claim that many laborers are employed legally, but, in a tacit acknowledgment that pay is kept to a minimum, they also accuse major retailers of imposing low prices for their tomatoes and squashing margins.

"Prices of [canned] tomatoes have remained virtually unchanged since 1985, while the cost of production has risen," said Gianni Cantele, head of the farmers' group Coldiretti in Puglia. "When you buy a bottle of tomato pulp you pay more for the bottle than you do for the contents."

Red gold

Coldiretti says 345,000 foreigners from 157 countries work in agriculture, helping to harvest every fruit and vegetable grown here, from oranges to apples, from grapes to olives. But tomato is the predominant crop and is known locally as "red gold."

The World Processing Tomato Council says Italy will overtake China this year to become the world's second largest producer of processed tomatoes after the United States. The export of tomatoes generated 1.8 billion in 2017.

The business is built on the backs of men like Idrissa Diassy, from Senegal who accuses the industry of taking advantage of migrants, many of whom can't go back home because of war, political persecution, or lack of any papers.

"They treat us like slaves. We cannot go anywhere else. We aren't allowed into other places in Europe. It is a trap."

Mr. Diassy is lucky, to the extent that he lives in an official, albeit overcrowded and decrepit refuge for migrants, which has running water and electricity.

It was set up last year after a nearby camp, known as the Great Ghetto, was bulldozed by the authorities following a fire that killed three migrants.

But with accommodation at a premium, the ghetto has risen again from the rubble – a shanty town of tiny shacks made of corrugated iron and wooden planks. Home to up to 1,000 people, it has zero amenities.

Coming down to Foggia in the wake of the road deaths, Mr. Salvini vowed to close the ghettos.

"It is not possible that in a progressive society such as ours ghettos should still exist," he told reporters, without saying where the shanty-town dwellers should go instead.

African laborers themselves see little chance that their lot will improve in a country where integration has proved notoriously difficult, even for those whose asylum requests are accepted and receive work papers.

Mahamadou Sima, who is from Mali and lives in the ghetto, has the right to work in Italy, but his efforts to get a regular job have failed, forcing him to stay in the fields.

"If you go for a job in Italy, you don't stand a chance if you are black," said Mr. Sima, describing how he had traveled to the northern city of Bologna to apply for a position in a cleaning company.

"I handed over my CV. I have all the papers you need, but the person in the firm threw my application in the bin. It broke my heart." 

This story was reported by Reuters. 

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