I was a slave in Puglia
The boss wears a white shirt, black trousers and dusty shoes. He’s from Puglia, but he hardly speaks Italian. To make himself understood, he seeks the assistance of his bodyguard, a Maghrebi who is in charge of keeping everything under control in the fields.
“Find out what this guy wants. If he’s looking for work, tell him we don’t need anyone today.” Having addressed the bodyguard in dialect, the boss drives off in his SUV.
The Maghrebi speaks perfect Italian. He doesn’t wear any stripes on his sweaty shirt but it’s quite obvious that he’s the caporale, the “gangmaster”. “Are you from Romania?” A grimace is all it takes to convince him. “I can hire you. Tomorrow”, he promises. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “A girlfriend?” “You have to bring me a woman. For the boss. If you bring him one, he’ll put you to work right away. Any girl will do.” He points to a twenty-year-old woman and her companion who are working on a conveyor belt attached to a huge tractor gathering tomatoes. “Those two are Romanians, just like you. She slept with the boss.” “But I’m alone.” “No work for you then.”
There’s no limit to the shame in the triangle of slavery. The gangmaster wants a woman for the boss to screw. This is the price that farm labourers have to pay in order to work in the heart of Puglia. A triangular area where there are no laws, which covers almost the entire province of Foggia: from Candela to Cerignola and northwards, beyond San Severo. It is hard to believe, but this area is located in the progressive region governed by Nichi Vendola, just half an hour away from the beaches of the Gargano; in the land of Giuseppe Di Vittorio, the hero of union struggles and one of the historical leaders of the CGIL; along the same road that pilgrims travel on their way to the huge sanctuary of San Giovanni Rotondo.
In order to pass a week undercover amidst the slave labourers, it is necessary to undertake a journey beyond the limits of human imagination. But this is the only way to report on the horrors that the immigrants are forced to endure.
They number at least five thousand people, maybe seven thousand. No one has ever carried out a census. They’re all foreigners; all employed as so-called “black workers”: that is, subject to illegal, untaxed and underpaid work scams. They are Romanians with or without work permits, Bulgarians, Poles. And Africans: from Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Senegal, Sudan and Eritrea. Some entered the country only a few days ago, illegally on small boats. They came from Libya because they knew that in the summer they could find work here. It makes no sense to patrol the coasts if Italian businessmen decide to ignore the law. Down here, they also ignore the Constitution: the first, second and third Articles. As well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
To protect their affairs, farmers and landowners have created an army of ruthless gangmasters: Italians, Arabs and eastern Europeans. They lodge their workers in makeshift shacks that even stray dogs avoid: without water or electricity, in disgusting, unhygienic conditions. They make the men work from 6am to 10pm. And they pay them only 15 or 20 euros per day. Complaints are dealt with in the form of beatings with a steel bar. Some workers decided to seek the assistance of the police in Foggia: thanks to the immigration law named after Umberto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini, they were arrested or expelled from Italy because they didn’t have the necessary work permits.
Others ran away. The gangmasters searched for them all night long. It was a scene similar to the manhunts in Alan Parker’s film, Mississippi Burning. In the end, some of them were captured and some of them were killed. Now it’s the season of the “red gold”, of the tomato harvest. Almost all the produce used by the canneries that make tomato sauce in Salerno, Naples and Caserta comes from the province of Foggia. Fresh perino tomatoes grown here become pelati, canned peeled tomatoes or passata, the cooked tomato concentrate. The ones that aren’t yet ripe are used as salad tomatoes. They’re picked in the triangle of slavery and end up being used to make the dishes of all of Italy and half of Europe. Then there are the pomodori a grappolo, the cherry tomatoes on the vine that are used to make pizza. Soon it’ll be time to harvest other vegetables, like eggplants and peppers. The industrialists pretend to ignore what’s going on and at the end of the harvest they all get in line to cash in their agricultural subsidies from Brussels. L’Espresso inspected dozens of fields. Nowhere were the seasonal labourers treated according to the law. But one should not think that this is just a case of illegal competition in the European Union: the most serious human rights abuses are tolerated in these fields and olive groves.
It’s not difficult to become part of Europe’s sleaziest agricultural market. All it takes is a phony name used from time to time. A photocopy of a certificate refusing right of entry, obtained last year at the immigration detention centre on the island of Lampedusa. And a bicycle on which to escape if at all possible, in case of danger. The gangmaster who demands a woman for the boss controls the gathering of perino tomatoes in Stornara. He usually works on one of the first fields on the left, just outside the town, along the road that, through the haze, leads to Stornara. It’s wiser to move on.
To get here, one has to pedal along state highway 16 and then continue through the olive groves for another ten kilometres. The hamlet is like a small island in the middle of a sea of fields. At the railway station in Foggia, Mahmoud (35) from the Ivory Coast, had told me that the tomato harvest had probably already begun. He sleeps in a hole in the ground near Lucera and is unemployed. There, in the north, the tomatoes aren’t yet ripe. So, for a small fee, Mahmoud sells information to the newcomers who arrive by train.
Today must be the hottest day of the entire summer: 42 degrees Celsius, according to the newspaper headlines at the newsstand in the station. In the middle of the fields, an abandoned stable appears in the haze. Africans inhabit it. They’re resting on an old sofa under a tree. Someone speaks Tamashek, they are Tuaregs. A greeting in their language helps break the ice.
Racial segregation is practiced rigidly in the province of Foggia. The Romanians sleep among Romanians. The Bulgarians among Bulgarians. Africans among Africans. The rule applies to hiring as well. The gangmasters don’t allow exceptions.
So, if a white man wants to discover how the Blacks are treated, he has to use a borrowed name. Donald Woods, from South Africa. The name of the legendary journalist who denounced the horrors of apartheid to the world. “If you’re a South African, you can stay”, says Asserid (28). He left Tahoua in Niger, in September 2005. He arrived in Lampedusa, in June 2006. After being locked up for 40 days in the detention centre in Caltanissetta, he was finally released with an expulsion order. He says he’s been in Puglia for five days. Asserid crossed the Sahara desert by foot and catching rides on old four-wheel-drive vehicles and managed to reach Al Zuwara, the Libyan headquarters of human traffickers and boats that set sail to Italy.
“In Libya, all the immigrants know that Italians hire foreigners to pick tomatoes. That’s why I’m here. This is just a stop on the road for me. I had no choice.” Asserid claims he hopes to save some money and head off to Paris.
Adama, 40-years old, a Niger Tuareg from Agadez, travelled the opposite route. He arrived in Paris with a tourist visa. Then he fell on hard times. He was expelled from France as an illegal immigrant so he came down to Puglia, lured by the harvest of the red gold. “This is the northern-most Tuareg encampment in history”, jokes Adama. But there is little to laugh about. The water they pull up from the well using re-cycled containers is undrinkable; waste and herbicides pollute it. The bathroom is a swarm of flies over a hole. Two men sleep on each of the filthy mattresses strewn on the ground, each man paying 50 euros a month for the privilege. And they are the lucky ones.
Other gangmasters demand five euros per night for a sleeping space in a shack, which must be added to a 50-cent or even one-euro cut of their hourly wages, plus another five euros for transportation to the fields. It doesn’t take much to figure out that the gangmasters have devised all sorts of schemes to earn their easy money.
At 14.30, the gangmaster drives up in his VW Golf. The car is loaded to the roof. He questions the others about the only Caucasian in the group. “This guy, is he really an African?” Nobody knows what to say.
“I pay three euro per hour. OK for you? Ok, jump in”, the man says to me. He’s dressed in shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, with a tattoo of a woman in a bikini seen from behind, on his biceps.
We’re off. Nine of us in the Golf, three in front, five on the backseat. And a young boy, bent over like a soft toy animal, stowed away in the luggage compartment. The ten-minute-long drive is worth 40 euros to the gangmaster.
The guys call the man Giovanni. They’ve already worked from 06:00 am to 12:30 pm. The two-hour break wasn’t granted out of kindness; today it was unbearably hot, even for the bosses, so they decided to grant everyone a siesta.
Giovanni introduces himself to me, glancing in the rear-view mirror: “I’m John and you?” Then he warns me: “John good if you good. If you bad…” The conversation ends there because he speaks neither English nor French but the big driver’s knife, laid out on the dashboard, completes the message clearer than words.
Amadou (29), a Nigerian from Filingue, reveals the workers’ concerns: “Giovanni, today it’s Friday and we haven’t been paid for three weeks. We’ve almost finished our supplies of pasta. For 15 days we’ve had only pasta and tomatoes to eat. The boys are exhausted. They need meat to keep on working.”
The promised three euros per hour were a lie. But Giovanni makes more promises. Whenever he answers he says: “We Turks”, even if the license plates on the car are from Bulgaria. Judging by his accent he could be Russian or Ukrainian.
“I swear in the name of God”, continues the gangmaster, “today we’ll get the money and we’ll pay you all. You must believe me. I work just like the rest of you do, in Stornara. I’m not making fun of my colleagues”.
Giovanni lives on the outskirts of the hamlet. In a brick villa on the right, half way down the stretch to Stornara. Just across the road from a stable that seems on the verge of collapsing, without water and inhabited by slaves.
The overloaded Golf runs and swerves on the provincial road, heading towards Lavello. The speedometer reads 100 kilometres-per-hour, pure madness. Just abreast of the first farms outside the village, Giovanni turns right and heads down a dirt road. After two kilometres he stops the car and we continue on foot, in single file.
When the boss sees the group of African workers approach, he starts making noises like a monkey. Then he barks orders using the insults made famous after they were pronounced by the vice-president of the senate, Roberto Calderoli: “Come on Bingo Bongo!” In the same instant a van discharges nine Romanians. Three of them are women, the only females in the group.
We work looking at the ground. If someone raises their head, they’re immediately screamed at: “What the fuck is there to look at”, yells the boss. “Put your head down and get back to work”, he yells, approaching the culprit with a menacing demeanour.
Leonardo, roughly 30-years-old is from Puglia. He’s wearing Bermudas, an undershirt and fancy sunglasses, almost as if he’d just arrived from the beach. From the way he talks, it’s possible to gather that he’s the owner of the farm. Or more likely, the owner’s son. He’s in charge of the work force, a sort of commander of the gangmasters.
His farm is some ten kilometres further down the road, on the outskirts of Stornara. Just off the same road Giovanni has taken to drive the slaves to work.
Another Italian, the gangmaster of the Romanians, assists Leonardo. He’s wearing a white polo shirt; he has long hair and a well-groomed moustache.
Most likely the third Italian is the buyer of the crop. He’s thin, short blonde hair. His cell phone is hanging on a golden chain and dangles in front of his chest. He speaks with a strong Neapolitan accent.
He parks his SUV and immediately makes himself heard. Someone has mistakenly laid several full cases of tomatoes on the plants. So he screams like a madman: “I swear to God, if anyone else puts another case on the plants, I’ll break his head with it.”
The three Italians are sweating but only on account of the heat. They don’t move a muscle except to watch the slaves.
Giovanni goes to pick up some other slaves. Then he returns twice with supplies of water. Four plastic bottles, each one filled with one-and-a-half litres, are all there is for 17 thirsty people. The bottles have been filled up God only knows where. One of them has a hole and is almost empty. The water stinks but at least it is cool. Anyway, it’s hardly enough for all. Two swigs of water in more than four hours of hard work in 40 degrees Celsius can’t quench anyone’s thirst.
Most of the Africans haven’t had any lunch or even breakfast, for that matter. Some of them manage to eat some green tomatoes without getting caught by the gangmasters. They eat the tomatoes knowing that they’ve been sprayed with pesticides. Maybe that’s why, for days, nobody has had any mosquito bites.
Leonardo wants to know how come there are whites in Africa. He walks among the curved backs like a professor among his students. Mohamed (28) from Guinea, is given permission to speak. To stop working or to speak, one always needs to ask permission. Mohamed knows why there are whites in South Africa. He has a degree in political science and international relations from the University of Algiers. He speaks Italian, French and Arabic. And he answers, while remaining on his knees in front of that Italian who shows no shame in admitting he’s never heard of Nelson Mandela.
“Have you understood?” Leonardo asks the other two Italians, after a while. “In Italy, the fair skinned people live in the North while we in the South are dark skinned. In Africa, in the South they’re white and these people from the North are Black.”
The incident happens suddenly. Michele is the oldest of the Romanians. He’s in his sixties, grey hair. He’s loading cases full of tomatoes onto the trailer hitched behind the tractor. The wooden case is thin and dry and it cracks, and 12 kilos of tomatoes roll on the ground.
Before Michele has a chance to bend over and gather them, Leonardo, with his hand closed in a fist, strikes him on the head. “Pay attention, asshole”, he screams. “Do you think we’re gonna stand here and wait while you drop the cases?”
Michele mumbles an excuse. He’s too tired and too offended to speak out loud.
“Sorry, my ass”, says Leonardo. “You’ve gotta pay attention.”
We all stop working and watch. A girl stands up to protest. The man with the Neapolitan accent runs up like a fury. “Get down, nothing’s happened. Get down or nobody goes home until the work is finished.” As if anyone among these people had a home to return to!
Michele returns to load the tractor helped by other Romanians. Half an hour later, he’s sitting on the ground again, holding his head. He’s bleeding heavily from his nose. One of his companions squeezes a ripe tomato on his forehead to soothe the pain.
The man with the moustache tells Leonardo what happened.
“I had to hit him with a stone right between the eyes. I had to do it. That asshole got pissed off at me because you’d beaten him and because there’s no money for them tonight. As though it were my fault. He grabbed a stone and I took it away from him. As if we can allow some shitty Romanian to threaten us.”
We stop working when the sun disappears behind the Dauni Mountains. Michele is feeling better. The Romanians gather around their gangmaster. Giovanni takes a photo of his group. The photo is used to know who’s on the payroll and in case someone runs away.
Then it’s time for everyone to sign the register with the number of hours they’ve worked. Today we’ve finished working earlier than usual.
The gangmaster explains why to Amadou during the return drive: “The carabinieri are out here.”
Giovanni points to a field of tomatoes along the road. “Do you see this field? This afternoon, the carabinieri came and picked up some of my boys. I’ve got people working here, too. But don’t be afraid. The field where you guys are working”, he says, pointing to his shoulder, as though he were wearing stripes, “is controlled by the mafia”.
Sometimes these raids happen on payday. Sometimes it’s the bosses who call the municipal police, the state police or the carabinieri, alerting them to the presence of the immigrants in the fields. An anonymous phone call will do the trick. This way the gangmasters get to keep their money and the prefectures can update their lists with the names of the new immigrants who’ve been expelled.
Amadou points out that, once again, no one is getting paid. “Are you a Muslim?” Giovanni asks. “Yes. Well, I swear in Allah’s name that next week I’ll pay all of you. And if you need meat, I swear I’ll invite you all over to my house. Obviously, next week, when you can pay for the meat.”
On 14 May 1904, the police attacked a demonstration of farm labourers. Young Giuseppe Di Vittorio was among the group. Four people were killed, among them 14-year-old Antonio Morra, a childhood friend of the future union leader.
Nowadays, the protests are dealt with before they start. The gangmasters act as a sort of parallel police force. The businessmen ask them to intervene whenever there are any problems.
The gangmasters establish their power by enforcing the rules. “Tomorrow morning I’ll pick you up at five o’clock”, says Giovanni, after he’s unloaded all of his passengers.
It’s almost 22:00. Taking into account a quick shower with the water from the well and the time to consume a miserable dinner, we’re left with only five hours to sleep.
The Africans warn me about the sanctions. If someone shows up late for work, once they arrive in the fields, they’re beaten. The fine for skipping work, even if they’re sick, is 20 euros, and that means having to work for free for almost a full day.
If you travel fifty kilometres further north, you can hear similar stories. The map shows the town of Villaggio Amendola. It used to be a farming hamlet. Now it’s only a ghost town inhabited by Romanians and Bulgarians who’ve been reduced to slavery. Just like the former sugar refinery in Rignano or the town of Ghetto where, in the evening, you can hear township music, it seems like Soweto. Here, 100 per cent of the inhabitants are non-Italians. They’re all pickers, all foreigners with a single exception, 51-year-old Giuseppina Lombardo, from Calabria. For the local farmers she’s a saintly woman. With her Tunisian friend who goes by the name Aziz, she can manage to assemble a team of tomato pickers in less than half-an-hour. Giuseppina and Aziz live off the slaves. They own the only well in Villaggio Amendola. The water is polluted but they sell it anyway: the price is 50 cents for a 20-liter jerry can.
They also own the only store in the hamlet. In case a worker doesn’t want to loose a day’s work due to dysentery they’re more than happy to sell him mineral water. They also sell meat and chicken: of uncertain quality and at double the price compared to other stores.
It’s not easy to infiltrate oneself as an immigrant in this ghetto and to overcome the fears of its prisoners. Because Aziz, like all the other gangmasters, makes sure that everyone knows that talkers will be ruthlessly punished. In this town, Aziz and his companion make the laws.
Many here remember only too well what happened on Easter week in 2005. One afternoon a young 22-year-old Romanian, who’d just arrived four days earlier, returned to Villaggio Amendola loaded with shopping bags. He’d been to Foggia and he passed in front of the gangmaster’s store with his booty: a bottle of oil, some pasta.
The eyewitness who tells me the story is convinced that Aziz considered that behaviour an act of rebellion. The Romanians say that, shortly after, two men confronted the new arrival. One of them, they say, is a relative of Aziz. They hit him right in the middle of his head with a steel bar. Then they threw the bleeding body of the semi-conscious man onto a van and drove off. The boy was never seen again.
Something similar happened this year on 20 July. The day before, Pavel (39) had an argument with Giuseppina. He dropped 15 euros in the store and she accused him of stealing from the till.
In Romania, Pavel used to work as a cook for 150 euros per month. Ever since his arrival in Puglia on 20 March 2004, he’s had to tolerate violence and harassment. He tries to grin and bear it in order to send his savings to his wife and to his “fairy”, his 15-year-old daughter who’s still attending school.
Pavel has quick arms. Last year, working from dawn to nightfall, he managed to fill as many as 15 truckloads a day, 4500 kilograms of tomatoes. With the incentive pay at three euros per truckload, he was making good money, he says. After subtracting the gangmaster’s cut and the transportation fee, Pavel was making between 25 and 30 per day.
But on 20 July, Aziz prevented him from repeating his record. Someone had told Aziz that Pavel was complaining about low pay and that the labourers were being exploited. The Tunisian struck at 14:00, on a day when the labourers were in their shacks resting, because there was no work to be done. Pavel used his arms to protect his head. The steel bar broke his bones and opened deep wounds.
Pavel is certain that the intervention of his roommates saved his life. But they left him bleeding on his mattress until 01:00 am in the morning. The other foreigners were too afraid of Aziz to do anything. They were also afraid of being expatriated if they called the police.
At 20:00 the following evening, someone finally alerted the hospital. According to the official records, another five hours passed before the ambulance and a carabinieri patrol showed up at Villaggio Amendola.
On 31 July, Pavel was released from the hospital in Foggia, four days after being operated upon. The doctors’ report says he’ll need almost two months to recover from his wounds. He’s got steel pins in his arms, both of which are in a cast. In violation of their code of ethics, the doctors turn him over to the police. Regardless of the fact that as of 1 January 2007, Romanian citizens might be considered EU citizens, he’s treated like an illegal immigrant.
Since both of his arms are immobilized, Pavel can’t use a pen. The official decree notifying Pavel that he is being expelled from Italy is signed by primo dirigente dottoressa Piera Romagnosi. On the document, a note by the police official states that Pavel “refused to sign the expulsion papers”.
The prefecture of Foggia wastes no time: on the expulsion decree, a note states that the Romanian is “without passport”. As regards the crime of illegal immigration, this is an aggravating factor. The truth is that Pavel has a passport.
In the end, for lack of alternatives, an inspector gives him ten euros and has him taken by car back to the Villaggio Amendola. The police let him out of the car right in front of the store belonging to Giuseppina and Aziz.
The Tunisian decides to deal with the matter immediately. He needs to show everyone who is in charge. He threatens Pavel who finds refuge in a shack less than a kilometre outside the hamlet. Taking care not to be discovered, some of his countrymen bring him bread and some water.
After nine days of pain and suffering, a Romanian friend manages to contact a lawyer in Foggia, Nicola D’Altilia, a former policeman in northern Italy. The lawyer finds the shack and immediately brings Pavel to the hospital. His wounds are infected. The Romanian labourer is found to be in a serious condition and undernourished. Pavel has to be cured for septicemia.
On 21 August, Pavel is once again released from hospital. The lawyer who saved him accompanies him to the police to complete his complaint against the Tunisian gangmaster and his Italian accomplice; he’d only managed to register his original complaint on 14 August.
After a day in the police headquarters, Pavel is arrested as an illegal immigrant: he’s charged with not having obeyed the expulsion order according to which he was supposed to leave Italy, departing from Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The fact that he was unable to travel in his condition isn’t taken into consideration. Regardless of his wounds, Pavel is forced to sleep in a cell on a wooden bench.
The following day, he’s taken to court and a judge promptly postpones his hearing until October. In addition to having lost his job, under the provisions of the Bossi-Fini law, Pavel risks up to four years in prison. A harsher sentence than might befall the gangmaster who beat him and who’s never been arrested.
“That man”, says Pavel, who is still traumatized, “tried to hit me in the head. He wanted to kill me.”
In this area the authorities have already found the bodies of a few labourers. Slavomit R., a 44-year-old Pole, was burned to death on 2 July 2005, in a field near Stornara. The case is still unsolved. Just like the case of two unidentified bodies found near Foggia.
The disappearances are yet another chapter in the catalogue of horrors. Nobody knows for sure how many Romanian, Bulgarian or African labourers have disappeared. When the gangmasters hire them or beat them to death, they don’t even know their names.
The only cases on record were opened after an official complaint by the Polish Embassy. The diplomats from Warsaw had to be very persistent: since 2005, they’ve been trying to find out what happened to 13 Poles who came to work as seasonal labourers in the triangle of slavery and who’ve never returned home. They just disappeared without leaving a trace.
The list compiled in August by the Polish Consulate is rather embarrassing for the Italian authorities. According to the Polish diplomats, who’ve sent 12 official requests for information to the police headquarters in Foggia, they haven’t received any answer regarding nine of these cases.
After waiting for months in vain for an answer, they decided to pass the requests to the General Commanding office of the carabinieri. The anti-Mafia prosecutor’s office in Bari finally ordered the ROS, the carabinieri’s elite investigative branch, to open a formal investigation.
And yet, no one is investigating the death of a child because, it seems, what happened isn’t a crime. It seems that the baby was born at the end of August.
During the week of Ferragosto, Liliana D. was still working in the tomato fields even though she was eight months pregnant. She was working in a field near San Severo. Evidently, neither her husband nor the gangmaster thought she needed to be protected from the intense heat and fatigue.
When Liliana became ill it was too late. She had a hemorrhage. She lay for two days without medication in the shack where she lived. There’s no family doctor for the slaves in the province of Foggia.
In the afternoon of Saturday 19 August, her husband brought her to the hospital at San Severo. The woman was near death and she had to be taken into the intense care ward. The doctors delivered the child by Cesarean section, but the baby was dead. One could consider this death a case of “collateral damage” caused by industrial practices that reward price-cutting at all costs.
The food industry in Campania pays four or five cents per kilo for the tomatoes from Puglia. On the stalls along the roads near Foggia, the price of perino tomatoes has already risen to 60 cents per kilo. In Milan, the ripe tomatoes used to make tomato sauce fetch 1.20 euros per kilo and the price for golden tomatoes is 2.80 euros per kilo. At the supermarket, the price for passata, the cooked tomato concentrate from Campania, ranges from 86 cents to 1.91 euros per kilo. Pelati, canned peeled tomatoes, can cost anything between 1.04 and 3.00 euros per kilo.
And yet, in the ghetto in Stornara, even tonight, at the end of the month, the labourers still don’t have enough money to buy a piece of meat. “Donald, don’t go away”, pleads Amadou. “Giovanni is very angry with you because you left the group. He’s looking for you. I’ll go let him know that you’re here.”
In the midst of all this misery, Amadou has figured out the most convenient way to behave. Even though he himself belongs to the number of men forced to kneel to earn a living, he’s chosen to side with the gangmasters.
It’s time to grab my bike and run. In the darkness. Before Giovanni decides to call his henchmen and they start hunting me in the fields.