Rome - As Mafia infiltration of the agro-sector spreads throughout Italy, so the phenomenon of illicit agricultural labour contracting known as “caporalato” shows no sign of abating; just the opposite. The case of Paola Clemente, a 49-year old farm worker from San Giorgio Jonico whose life was cut short in 2015 when she suddenly took ill, is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg. Thanks to information gathering work done discreetly, and fraught with danger, by the CGIL labour union, which for years has been sending out “workers’ rights vans” to those agricultural areas most at risk for the practice of employing workers without a regular contract, we know that Italy’s agro-sector employs more than 400,000 workers in the “black economy”.
Out of this total, one in four workers, mainly foreigners, are “forced to submit to forms of blackmail and live in dismal conditions,” states the latest report by the Placido Rizzotto Flai-CGIL Observatory. An army of four hundred thousand people are working in Italy’s shadow economy. “Workers are exploited, underpaid, at the mercy of the “caporale” and the gang master system under which they work,” explained Ivana Galli, general secretary at Flai-Cgil during the presentation of its Third Report, “These facts are unworthy of a modern, civilized country. But, whether in the hills of the Chianti region or the countryside around Ragusa, the “caporalato” follow the same practices, feeding an illegal economy that starts in the fields and permeates the whole agribusiness supply chain.” From north to south the trouble spots of this agro-sector shadow economy number at least eighty.The map of exploitative labour is, however, ever changing as it follows the activity of agricultural cycles. The only regions that seem exempt from the phenomenon are Sardinia, Liguria and Molise. For the rest, for example, just taking a look at Piedmont’s agriculture during the autumn, it shifts from Saluzzo to Canelli and to Tortona; then to the area around Franciacorta, in Lombardy; the Laives in Trentino-Alto Adige; Padua, in the Veneto region; Portomaggiore in Emilia-Romagna; Amiata in Tuscany; Fondi and Terracina, in Lazio; the fertile lands known as Agro Sarnese-Nocerino and the Sessa Aurunca area, in Campania; Andria, Bisceglie and Lecce in Puglia; Rosarno, Cosenza and Vibo Valentia in Calabria, ending with the Ragusa coast, the Upper Madonie, and Partinico, Palagonica and Capo d’Orlando, in Sicily. The sequence, of course, changes in spring and summer, but the overall picture stays the same. This, then, is not just affecting Southern Italy; and not exclusively migrant workers, either.
Last May Day, on the eve of the annual official start of the agricultural season, the Puglia chapter of the Flai-Cgil labour union invited Italy’s speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, to meet with relatives of the victims of illicit farm-labour hiring and with a delegation of female Apulian agricultural workers. Women, in fact, are the preferred targets of “caporali”; and there are complaints that exploitation and blackmail are often accompanied by harassment and sexual violence.
One of these women, who found the courage to speak out to prosecutors, reported that: “Once back on the bus, as the envelopes containing wages were being distributed, some women complained of some days missing. The “caporale” replied that we were aware of that so we shouldn’t complain. No one said another word, too afraid of losing their jobs. Even now I am still afraid of losing my job, and of being seen as petty. I’ve got a mortgage to pay, my husband just started working recently, he’d been laid off. You must understand that there are no jobs here; it’s tragic if we lose it.” That’s how the gangmasters reap their profits: out of needs and fears. There is a new law now in force, introduced a while back by ministers Maurizio Martina and Andrea Orlando, and it has some teeth. But it’s an uphill battle, as the practice is very widespread. Last year inspections on farms grew by 59%. And 56% of workers were indeed found to be lacking, partially or totally, a regular contract; there were 713 recorded cases of gangmaster hiring practices.
It’s been known for some time that this illicit practice has undergone a kind of mutation: while citrus fruit, watermelons and tomatoes are among the main crops, now illicit hiring practices for workers in such export-quality products, as wine production and meat packing, are taking place. And, throughout, the practice of “caporalato” displays some consistently ugly traits: like offering an average daily wage ranging between €22 and €30, which represents one-half of regularly stipulated contract work for shifts of between eight and 12 hours, with piece rate pay (which is not allowed), and includes criminal practices such as violence, blackmail and taking away the workers’ IDs, plus demands for payment for providing accommodation and supplying basic necessities, in addition to the gangmasters charging them for transport services. Each farm worker is, in fact, expected to pay €5 for the ride to work, €3.5 for a sandwich, and €1.5 for water. In its Third Report Flai-Cgil has also unveiled new forms of illegal hiring disguised as, apparently legal, temporary employment agencies and cooperatives. The latter function as cooperatives without any land, “signifying that no agricultural activity is taking place”, but are being used to fictitiously hire farm workers. This is happening in the Lower Mantua region, in the Piana del Fucino, in Alto-Bradano (Basilicata), in the Plains of Sibari, and even in that example of civility that is Modena.