Sixteen migrant farm laborers died this month in two separate road crashes within 48 hours of each other in Italy, sparking the workers to stage a mass walkout by the workers that has drawn international attention to the dire conditions endured by seasonal tomato pickers.
The crashes occurred close to the southern city of Foggia, which hosts half a dozen makeshift camps for illegal workers. Both accidents involved overcrowded vans carrying migrant laborers home from long shifts in the region’s tomato fields.
The vans are often operated by illicit gang members, known as the Caporali, who act as middlemen in Italy’s $3.5 billion tomato industry, supplying farm owners with cheap labor and taking a cut of the workers’ wages.
That leaves workers like Mohamed Doumbé Keita, an undocumented migrant from Guinea, earning less than $30 for a shift that can last up to 15 hours in scorching heat.
“It’s like the return of slavery,” Mohamed told VICE News. “Life is tough here. There’s no medical care, and each man fends for himself. If you don’t put in ten hours a day, you won’t even make €20.”
Though Italy’s previous government passed a new law to criminalize the Caporali as a mafia crime, it’s only now being enforced for the first time.
But the legislation targets farmers rather than the middlemen themselves, threatening a jail term of up to eight years for landowners found to be hiring laborers through the Caporali, and imposing penalties for using illegal workers.
That has angered some farmers, who feel their earnings are already squeezed by big retailers and consumer demand for cheap produce. VICE News went to Italy to see what the situation is really like.
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