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“Look At Us, We Are Slaves” - Inside Italy’s Systemic Exploitation of African Migrant Workers

The phenomenon of caporalato is not a new one. Referring to the illegal intermediation and exploitation of migrant workers, Italy’s agricultural infrastructure relies heavily on this concept and the corrupt networks it facilitates. 

With over 50,000 refugees arriving on Italy’s shores in 2022 alone, the prevalence of migrant exploitation is deep-rooted and insidious. Those arriving from sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Asia are known in the country to be the most severely exploited of the migrant diaspora. 

According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, Italy's agriculture sector holds extremely highest rates of irregularity of employment. Within these low-skilled or seasonal roles the exploitation of migrant workers is widespread and systemic - 24 percent of the agricultural workforce face human rights violations, arbitrary wage reductions, and violence. 

As a report by Amnesty International outlines, “In the past decade the Italian authorities have whipped up public anxiety by alleging that the country’s security is threatened by an uncontrollable ‘clandestine’ migration, thus justifying strict migration measures. These measures put migrant workers in a precarious legal situation making them easy prey for exploitation.”

Shockingly, Italian prosecutor Paola Guglielmi named two of Italy’s food giants, Mutti and Conserve Italia, as profiting from such “conditions of absolute exploitation.”

Guglielmi’s investigation came after the death of 47-year-old Sudanese immigrant Abdullah Mohammed in 2022. Mohammed suffered a heart attack while working in the tomato fields, and died on site after his pleas to be taken to hospital were ignored.

The Guardian reported no healthcare insurance, no access to medical staff, and flagrant violations of safety measures as among the staggering number of labour abuses facing workers like Mohammed.

On the Italian isle of Sicily, this bleak reality is no different. Forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution, or poverty, African refugees arrive on the island in search of a better life and money to support the families they had to leave behind.

However, they are often met with a paltry wage and atrocious living conditions. The migrants are resigned to squalid, overcrowded refugee camps, just a stone’s-throw from the pristine olive groves where their labour turns huge profits for gang-masters.

The caporalato system means that migrants work for gang leaders instead of directly for farmers, and with the fiscal benefit that this brings Sicily’s mafia, migrants are often the artillery of choice for organised crime networks too. 

The prevalence of overburdened refugee camps on the island allows the Cosa Nostra mafia to bribe officials, giving them total control over managing migrant accommodation. In doing so the gang benefits from government subsidies of around €40 per immigrant per day, creating an insidious pattern that satisfies everyone but the migrant workers.

As a report by the Washington Post aptly surmises, “The interest is to open as many [camps] as possible and keep the migrants there. The longer they keep them, the more money they bring in.”

The Cosa Nostra also ensures that mafia-run companies are the primary suppliers of goods and services to refugee camps. Being a much cheaper option than the legitimate government-supplied alternative, mafia bosses pocket the difference while the workers once again bear the brunt of systemic corruption.

Exploiting the irregular migrants in this way makes good business sense, both to the local farmers, and the caporali – the contractors whose job it is to recruit illegal workers. Although Italian law dictates eight-year prison sentences for those facilitating migrant exploitation, the UN estimates that around 500,000 migrants are working within Italy’s agricultural sector – half of its workforce.

Despite these immense figures, many African workers are estimated to earn just €2 an hour – €7.50 below the legal minimum wage. 

In fact, just last year The Guardian reported how a 27-year-old Nigerian migrant was attacked after requesting a supplementary €5 pay for working overtime. His Italian boss allegedly responded by shooting the worker several times. 

Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor working on the case, argued that “exploited immigrants in the countryside are treated as dead meat. They are considered objects, the property of businessmen, slaves.”

Yoro, a 17-year-old Senegalese boy living in the same camp as the man who was killed, said - “[We are] slaves. Look at us. Look at our hands. Look at our faces. They are the hands and faces of slavery.”

Yoro is only one of thousands of teenage migrants who run away from the overcrowded formal reception centres, in order to find work. Many are Senegalese, Gambians, Nigerians, and Malians. 

Anolf, a charity helping refugees in Sicily, states “the shelters are collapsing and there is no space in the reception centres. Many migrants are willing to do anything to make any money and they are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit. They have no alternative.” 

It is for this reason that a large proportion of female asylum-seekers also become trapped within the prostitution cycle.

Many African refugees making the perilous journey to Italy have already been unknowingly sold into sex work, ‘sponsored’ by traffickers who have paid for their journey. According to the International Organization for Migration, this fate befalls 80 percent of the Nigerian women who arrive in Europe as irregular migrants. Countless others are likely to fall into sex-trafficking rings upon their arrival. 

Mafia involvement extends to this dimension of migrant exploitation too. Many women are provided with false personal details by organised-crime groups, according to The Guardian. This traps them firmly within the cycle of coercion and abuse, since their documents are controlled by mafia bosses and can be ‘destroyed’ at any time.

Various investigations have been conducted into forced prostitution in Italy, as a result of increased abortion levels among migrant diasporas in recent years. Lack of access to birth control creates a dangerous reality for these women, but it is the horror stories of their day-to-day existence that prove the most frightening.

Gang rape is often used as punishment if the women resist being put to work as a prostitute. As journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau asserts, “the theory is that if a woman realises the penalty for refusing to prostitute herself is gang rape, she will likely agree that roadside sex is a better alternative. It is rare to meet a trafficked woman who has not been faced with this choice.”

With the dawn of a new far-right government in Italy, there are fears that the troubling reality facing many undocumented migrants will only worsen. However, the renewed EU Pact on Migration and Asylum (2021-2025) offers a glimmer of hope for those at the locus of these exploitative cycles.

The new action plan being implemented by the EU focuses on “reducing unsafe and irregular migration, [and] establishing a sustainable migration and asylum framework.”

In a country like Italy where social infrastructure is underscored so heavily by migrant work, successful execution of policies like these is essential to improve the safety and security of countless vulnerable individuals.

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Tags: #Italy #MigrantCrisis #MigrantExploitation


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