Cerco lavoro. As with many of the world’s migrants, the first local phrase that Ousmane learned was: “I’m looking for a job.” Newly arrived in Italy from Senegal in 1998, he found one as a street vendor in Milan, then as a beekeeper in Novara, and then as a factory worker in Longarone. He lost his job in 2009. After one and a half years of borrowing money from friends, Ousmane stopped looking and resigned himself to working in the fields.
Italy is Europe’s garden, the continent’s top supplier of tomatoes and second only to Spain for citrus fruits. Add kiwis, lettuce, fennel, peppers, olives, potatoes, tobacco, peaches, grapes, apples and watermelons, and you get enough crops to keep harvesters busy the whole year round. Since fewer and fewer Italians choose to spend all day with a bent back, Italy’s agricultural workforce is mostly made up of Africans and Eastern Europeans, willing to endure most things to send some money home.
“Virtually no one has a work contract,” says Ousmane, confirming a 2008 survey by international NGO Doctors Without Borders, which found that 90 percent of immigrant agricultural workers in southern Italy work illegally. To find fieldwork, Ousmane moved to Rignano Scalo, an overcrowded, decaying rural ghetto, near Foggia. Every morning he walked to a roundabout and waited to be chosen by a caporale, a man hired by a landowner to oversee the harvest. Then, driven to a nearby field in a van loaded with up to 50 men, Ousmane picked tomatoes for 10 hours.
In that line of work, temperatures can rise to 40°C and payment is by weight: €5.00 ($6.87) for a 300-kilogram basket from which the caporale skims €1.50 ($2). You can make €35 ($47) in a day here, but the ride costs €5 ($6.75). Then you’ll spend about €10 ($13.50) to eat and sleep on a dirty mattress in a house with no water or electricity, and maybe €10 more to buy cigarettes, phone credit, harvesting tools and hot water (€1 [$1.35] a bucket.) That leaves €10. Count a few days every week in which you won’t be chosen and the fact that you’re likely to get ill at a certain point, and you’re no longer making money. You’re surviving.
After that summer, Ousmane got lucky: an Italian NGO offered him a job and with it a permanent permit of stay. But for many like him, it’s the ghetto that becomes permanent. Among those who have tried to leave, some have been beaten, sexually assaulted, and in a few cases, even killed by the same gangmasters who hired them. And once the pride that makes them quit runs out, many end up at the next roundabout or in a neighboring region, waiting for another van to pick them up.