Across Italy an invisible army of migrant workers harvests tomatoes destined for our dinner plates. Paid poverty wages and living in squalor, medical charities have described conditions as ‘hell’.
In the parched countryside outside the town of Venosa, in Basilicata, southern Italy, along a rough track fifteen minutes’ drive from the nearest road, you come to a series of ruined farmhouses. Overgrown and run down, the brickwork crumbling, and surrounded by the detritus of poverty – rubbish, abandoned water butts, washing draped out of windows, dogs roaming – at first glance it’s difficult to believe anyone lives here.
The slums are in fact home to several hundred migrant workers about to harvest the region’s abundant tomato crop. Every August, thousands of itinerants, mostly from Africa, some from Eastern Europe, descend on southern Italy to scratch a living picking tomatoes that will eventually be processed and exported across Europe – including to the UK – to be sold in tins, or as pastes, purees or passatas, or used as an ingredient in other food products.
But an Ecologist investigation has revealed how the lucrative trade is blighted by exploitation and abuse: workers – some of them illegal immigrants – are forced to toil for up to 14 hours a day picking tomatoes in harsh conditions for meagre wages, frequently under the control of a network of gangmasters who make excessive deductions or charge inflated rates for transport, accommodation, food and other ‘services’. Those complaining can face violence and intimidation.
Workers frequently live in appalling squalor: home is often a derelict building without power or any form of effective sanitation. As many as thirty people can be crammed into a single, filthy, one floor house. Healthcare is virtually non-existent and contact with the outside world minimal.
So bad are the living and working conditions endured by the migrants that campaigners have dubbed them ‘Europe’s tomato slaves’.
Most seek out the precarious employment in order to send money to family back home, but find themselves caught up in a brutal spiral of poverty and exploitation. Unable to save sufficiently to transfer any money – or pay for a flight out of Europe – the workers become trapped and are forced to seek out similarly low paid and back-breaking work harvesting oranges, lemons, olives or strawberries in order to survive.
Human rights groups and unions say as many 50,000 migrant workers could be affected, toiling in the agricultural regions of Puglia, Basilicata and Campania, amongst others. The figure could be much higher as many migrants are thought to be in the country illegally.
Conditions are so poor that the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – more usually associated with providing medical aid in conflict zones – has sent mobile clinics to treat migrants in some areas, and issued a scathing report describing the workers’ experiences as ‘hell’.