Cassibile and the structural “emergency” of the illegal recruitment of underpaid agricultural workers

From the main road leading to the town of Cassibile, one can get a sense of the informal camp of the migrant workers. The camp consists of tents, tin huts and small, improvised shelters built between the trees. The migrants who live here leave every morning at dawn to harvest potatoes in the fields and return late in the evening after an exhausting working day.

The tent city is large and spacious, divided into ethnic groups and national communities that gather around the huts and vans. Rachid, a seasonal worker who regularly returns to Cassibile, tells us that there are currently about 150/200 workers left in the camp – all without a work contract – who arrived two months ago to harvest potatoes in the season from April till June.

Despite the current national health emergency, the camp concept has remained largely unchanged since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of finding alternative accommodation with adequate hygienic conditions, the camp was additionally isolated and sealed off so that the workers could continue their work: In this sense masks were distributed, and a water pipe was installed in the camp, preventing migrants from going to the city center to get supplies and ‘endangering’ the health of the inhabitants of Cassibile.

In the camp of Cassibile, however, the state of emergency continues to exist, and that for almost twenty years now: It’s called a corporatist and it’s a plague that exploits and kills migrant workers. Cassibile is, like many other ghettos in the South (but now also in the North) of Italy, a low-cost labor recruitment center.

The anti-racist network from Catania Rete Antirazzista Catanese, which has been monitoring the situation of migrants in the camps of Cassibile for years, reports that the placement of migrant workers is done by companies and subcontractors. They exploit the migrants by making them fill 100 boxes of potatoes in a working day of about 9/10 hours for very low wages. The lack of employment contracts and trade union protection creates a wage differentiation for migrants based on exploitation, which in turn has a direct impact on their lives, health and rights.

Despite promises to intervene by the Syracuse city administration, no official camp has yet been set up that would at least allow the maintenance of minimum hygiene and health conditions. The current camp is currently characterized by precarious conditions, isolation, and a lack of basic services. Light and gas are scarcely available, as are toilets, of which there are only a few and which are mainly in poor condition. Nevertheless, the migrants have organized themselves among each other. In the center of the camp a large tent has been put up, which is used as a common dining area with a refrigerator, a freezer and a camping stove.

The camp is mainly organized by the Sudanese, Senegalese and North African (especially Moroccan) communities. Representatives of these communities told us that the season is coming to an end in Cassibile and most of them will leave the barracks of Syracuse to start the new working season in the countryside of Puglia, between Nardò, Lecce, Brindisi, Foggia and Bari. In September they will then return to Sicily for the season in Campobello di Mazara, which will last until November. Seasons of underpaid and exploitative work that feed the whole of Italy and are cyclically repeated, regardless of any national emergency.

Refugees in the camps of Cassibile

From the observations over the past few days, we have discovered that a large proportion of the workers in the camps are asylum seekers, holders of humanitarian protection and people waiting for their residence permits to be renewed. These people do not have the possibility to work legally according to contractual provisions. The proportion of people with refugee status is particularly high, including especially Sudanese nationals, who form a large and cohesive community. We have talked to them in the camp over the last few weeks, accompanied by some of the Intersos staff who have been in the area since the beginning of June. From the conversations with the refugees it became clear that their concerns need to be addressed in a broader meeting and in the presence of the local authorities. This meeting took place on 20 June on the date of the World Refugee Day.

On this occasion we were welcomed – together with the anti-racist network from Catania and Africa Unita – by Sudanese residents as well as various communities from sub-Saharan and North Africa. They offered us a cup of tea and provided us with an insight into their difficult life as workers and expressed their concern about their situation: The most criticized issue was the impossibility to obtain or extend a residence permit, as Bari, a young Sudanese boy, told us in detail. The lack of institutions to guarantee housing, basic needs and decent living conditions in Syracuse was also strongly emphasized. Fortunately, at least there is the parish of Pastor Carlo which supports the migrant workers.

The meeting was also attended by associations and individual activists from Syracuse who agreed to take action in response to the camp residents’ requests. A volunteer psychologist was also called in after a migrant living in the camp and suffering from psychological problems was reported. Bari, Rachid and the others described the organization of the forthcoming departure in the course of the beginning tomato harvest season in Apulia. For this reason, at the end of the meeting, the members of the organization Africa Unita distributed dozens of tents and sleeping bags, useful means of survival in the slums of southern Italy.

illegal recruitment,Both Puglia and Sicily are regions where exploitation through underpaid agricultural work is depriving migrant workers of health and life: A few days ago, the Senegalese worker Ben Ali Mohamed from Borgo Mezzanone died in Foggia. He burned to death in a fire that broke out in the slum where he lived. A few weeks ago, the Pakistani Siddique Adnan was murdered in Caltanissetta. He was the spokesman for the foreign workers, the victims of underpaid agricultural work.

Therefore, these ghettos of seasonal workers in the south of Italy are still places of violence and oppression, where the dignity and freedom of people is systematically disregarded and where people are forced to live in slave-like conditions by a brutal and discriminatory economic and regulatory system.

The ghettos in the countryside show that the rights of refugees remain empty slogans that had to be dug up again in the meaningless commemorations of the World Refugee Day. In today’s reality, the denial of the rights of refugees anchored in the international conventions and in the constitution is a painful structural practice that reduces migrants to arms collecting potatoes and tomatoes and filling boxes with them. Cassibile reminds us, like all the other stages of the seasonal harvesting cycle, that the co-responsibility of the institutions and the apathy of the public opinion on the issue of underpaid agricultural work and illegal and slave-like economic activity is a real emergency situation. This is particularly true after the outbreak of Covid-19 and the global lockdown, which once again highlights the gap between the privileged and the exploited.

In times of pandemic, in the absence of real regularization to protect migrants and in a climate of growing institutional and social racism, labor exploitation continues to be an ordinary phenomenon, a criminal dysfunction of the productive system, which thrives while the State deliberately turns the other way.

The violence of the illegal recruitment of workers, who have become victims in the camps of the South, cannot be normalized – neither in ordinary times nor in extraordinary times – but it must be fought so that the rights of all workers, Italians and foreigners, which are reduced to exchangeable bodies, do not rot.

Silvia Di Meo

Borderline Sicilia

Translation by Clara-Marie Pache