Reporter’s Notebook: The hidden victims of Italy’s tomato harvest

Screen grab from the video below.
Screen grab from the video below.

Like every summer, thousands of African workers have come to one region of southern Italy this August for the tomato harvest. Despite a 2016 law designed to protect them and other migrant workers from Italy and Eastern Europe, many of them are stranded in makeshift camps deep in the countryside, hidden from view and exploited by labour brokers known as “caporali.” Derek Thomson, the editor-in-chief of the Observers, went to meet them.

The Observers team went to the fields around Foggia, in the region of Puglia, the "heel "of Italy. Foggia is the province that has the hightest output of tomatoes in Italy.

You can watch the report below.


"As soon as you get near a field, someone comes to ask who you are"

Here are Thomson’s notes on filming this report:


On our second day in the area, we saw a team of African workers harvesting in a field about 15km from Foggia. We started filming from about 300 metres away. But after a few minutes an Audi 4x4 drove up. The driver asked who we were and what we were doing. When we told him we were journalists filming the tomato harvest, he told us that the owner of the field was in hospital in a coma and it wasn’t appropriate for us to film. He suggested another field three kilometres down the road.

At the next field, we started filming again, at a distance of about 300 metres again, on a public road. But after two or three minutes, a yellow van that had been parked near the workers drove across the field to find out what we were doing. The driver told us we weren’t allowed to film and asked us to leave.

"We were followed by two cars"

Later that afternoon, we were searching for a migrant camp known as “La Pista” (“The Runway” – it is located on one of the runways of an abandoned air base). We noticed that we were being followed by a Mercedes driven by a man in his twenties talking on his cellphone. There was another car behind that, with two people visible. We slowed down to let them pass. Drivers in southern Italy usually pass at every opportunity, but these two cars stayed behind us – they were clearly following us. We finally found a space where we could turn around without stopping our car. The Mercedes left in another direction; the other car stayed until we left.

The next morning, we visited the "Gran Ghetto", down a rutted road 10km north of Foggia. It was once the site of the biggest migrant camp in Italy – with up to 5,000 residents during the busy summer tomato season. It was dismantled after a fire in 2017, but a few hundred workers had rebuilt their shacks. The atmosphere was hostile, our hellos met by cold stares. No question of taking the camera out – except for a few minutes when we were accompanied by a delegate from the USB union we had met a month earlier at a demonstration further south in Calabria.

As we drove back from the camp, we spotted some African workers installing an irrigation pipe in a tomato field. We decided to film one last shot before heading back to Rome. But then a truck drove up and stopped in front of our car. The Italian driver started shouting at me: “Who are you? Who are you?” I had already decided it was time to leave, when I heard Natalia Mendoza, FRANCE 24’s Rome correspondent who was filming, say, “Derek, we have to go.” As she got into the passenger seat, one of the workers who had run across the field – presumably the “caporale” – tried to stop her getting in. We left in a hurry.

So…. it’s hard to film the tomato harvest in southern Italy. As soon as you get close, someone comes up to ask what you’re doing. “Who are you? Are you journalists? Local police? Customs?"