In southern Italy, millions of tons of tomatoes are produced each year. To cut costs, people who own the large farms in the area call on the cheapest workforce possible: migrant workers. These workers end up ensnared in a system akin to modern slavery: they live in makeshift camps where they are exploited by the intermediaries who liaise with the farmers. They are stuck doing gruelling, underpaid work – but which is often their only option.

In the first part of our investigation, below, our Observers show us the living conditions for migrant labourers who work in tomato fields in Italy. In the next installment, we’ll examine emerging alternatives that could offer them better ways of making a living.

Some of these migrants have obtained asylum in Italy, while others are undocumented. FRANCE 24 spoke with a young man living in one of the largest migrant worker camps in this region, which is in Rignano, located in the south, about 170 kilometres from Naples. He used his smartphone to document working and living conditions for the migrants there.

In this video, Moussa B. leads us around the camp, showing us the rough shelters where several hundred people sleep during the winter. When he took this footage, it was 5 °C (or 41 °F).
How does this migrant labour system work?

Ousmane Kassambara, age 28, is one of Moussa’s friends. Originally from Mali, Kassambara spent more than two years at the mercy of the "caporali" – the men who act as go-betweens between the farmers and the workers. During this time, Kassambara lived in a makeshift camp and harvested tomatoes for a paltry salary.

In 2006, 27 "caporali" from different countries were indicted by an Italian court for "human trafficking” and “enslavement”. The NGO Oxfam says this system amounts to modern slavery.

"I’m paid 3.50 euros to fill a 300-kilogram crate of tomatoes”

For the past three years, every summer, I’ve harvested tomatoes.

I earn 3.50 euros for each 300 kilogram crate that I fill. The men who we call "caporali" [corporals] or "capo nero" [black capos] are people from North or sub-Saharan Africa who have “made it” – they’ve been in Italy for seven or eight years, they speak the language and they own a vehicle, usually a van. They act as intermediaries between workers like us and the Italians [who own the farms].

During the tomato harvest, workers are paid for each crate that they fill. (Photos by Moussa B., who is currently living in a makeshift camp in Rignano.)
The owners of these farms pay the capos seven or eight euros per crate [containing 300 kg of tomatoes], but they only give us half of that. The capos also charge us 5 euros a day for the ride to the fields and, if we want a sandwich or a bottle of water, we have to pay for that, too [Editor’s note: the sandwiches are about 5 euros each, while the water goes for two euros a bottle]. It’s a total rip-off and the pace of work is hellish.
"We are far from everything"
I spent two years in the camp in Rignano, staying there both in summer and in winter. During the winter, I managed to do a few other odd jobs. However, there was one period where I didn’t go into town for six months. We are far from everything. You have to pay an illegal taxi 10 euros to get anywhere.
Aerial view of the Rignano camp. This satellite image was captured on August 30, 2015.
The shelters that we live in are made with salvaged materials that we find wherever we can. Some we get from abandoned homes in town. But, if we do that, we have to rent a van for 60 euros to bring the materials that we salvaged back to camp. I made my own home out of wooden boards and pieces of plastic.
The shacks in the Rignano camp are sometimes made out of old trucks or vans. (Photo published in October 2017 on Google Maps.)
Some people prefer to rent a mattress in a makeshift shelter that’s already been built. Sometimes, 30 or 40 people will cram into one shelter. People pay around 35 euros to stay there two or three months of the season.
"During the summer, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 people living there"

We have to get water from a truck that comes every three or four days. Everyone comes out with their plastic canisters to fill. To shower with hot water, you have to pay a euro to the people from Burkina Faso who run the water-heater. We don’t have toilets, we just go in the nearby fields.

In the winter, there are several hundred people in the camp. In the summer, the number rises to somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000.

To establish order, we have representatives (usually three from each country) as well as security officers that we’ve chosen amongst ourselves. When someone behaves badly, he has to pay a fine. If he starts acting up again, he gets thrown out of the camp.

Our Observer hopes that he won’t have to work in the harvest again next year. He is currently renting a house in an Italian village and makes his money by doing odd jobs at seaside resorts.

This camp for migrant workers is in Boreano, located about 80 kilometres from Rignano. (Photo taken by Francesco Castelgrande in April 2016.)

Migrant workers have been living in large camps like this in Italy for the past 15 or so years. They made headlines in 2011, when migrant workers from a camp in Nardo went on strike to protest against their working and living conditions. This strike, which was led by a young man from Cameroon, made it a criminal offence to work as a capos.

Since then, Italian authorities have been trying to put a halt to this exploitative system, but, in doing so, have come up against powerful local mafias, including the 'Ndràngheta crime ring, which is centered in Calabria, Italy and which is linked with numerous "caporali".

The second part of our investigation, which is all about alternatives to this exploitative system, will be posted on the Observers website next week.  
Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas