Harvesting the grapes of wrath from Italy's fields of despair

29 November 2015 - 02:00 By Beauregard Tromp

The flood of migrants to Europe this year, especially from Syria, has prompted European powers to declare a 'crisis'. But for years, hundreds of thousands of migrants, many African, have journeyed to 'the promised land', only to have their labour exploited and to fester in ghettos on the edge of the cities. Accra. Bamako. Niamey. Banjul. At least half a dozen West African capitals are here. And at the centre there's the White House. It's crumbling, though, and the residents number only about two dozen. This is Grande Ghetto, in the deep south of Italy, where dreams of a better life arrive daily and are crushed in the Italian fields. With rubble-quilted shacks filling every space between dilapidated farmhouses, this is home."People don't earn enough to live in the city. So they live in the ghetto. This is exploitation of labour. This is black work," says Yvan Sagnet, a man who a few years ago led a worker revolt. The parallels with John Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath are astounding.story_article_left1Here, in Puglia, two hours from Bari in the south of Italy, up to 2500 workers, mostly African, fill up Grande Ghetto during the summer months. The region is renowned for its grapes, olives and tomatoes. The latter requires the most back-breaking kind of work, needing strong, hardy workers.Legally, the minimum wage is €8 (about R120) an hour. With many of the ghetto residents not legally allowed to work in Italy or the larger Schengen zone, it's more common that they get paid between €3.50 and €6. And that's for each 300kg crate they fill. It means the workday stretches beyond eight hours.In 2011, Sagnet, a Cameroonian studying in Rome, travelled to the farmlands of southern Italy to try to earn some extra cash. What he found was back-breaking work for a pittance. The strike he helped organise drew the attention of the authorities, who promised to increase labour inspections and clamp down on unscrupulous farmers. Things are better now, Sagnet admits, but too much remains the same.This past season three African workers died doing this work, two in the field.Two more were shot this month by a farmer who claims the men were trying to steal his fruit. One died."We try to negotiate, but they tell us the government doesn't help and they are also suffering. And if we don't want to work for that money, there's always more people coming needing work," says Alexander Mensah, a de facto leader in Ghana Ghetto.He's an auto mechanical engineer but cannot find work in his field. And this is how he ended up in the fields in Italy.full_story_image_hleft1"Here, you do what you see, not see what you do," he says.He has a wife and two children back home in Accra. He speaks to them over the phone twice a week and sends money home intermittently. He wants to go home one day, but hasn't built enough savings to sustain his family. Mensah has been in Italy for 15 years.All around Grande Ghetto those who were not taken to the farms at 3am mill about, tramping down the hard, sand streets between wood and corrugated-iron shacks that stretch out between the "capitals".There are food stalls where women sell meals for €3, standpipes for water and taverns in virtually every sector. On the way in, along a series of rutted roads, women in bright, sexy evening wear and too much make-up ply their trade.full_story_image_hright2Residents are wary of talking to strangers, and those who do intimate varied reasons for coming and staying in Italy. A family fight, economic plight, a repressive regime, the allure of the West.Some are ignorant of the system that governs their presence, while others, like "Small-Biggy", a Nigerian, tore up his documents before landing, ensuring that there would be a significant delay in his asylum request. Mahdi, from Gambia, is one of the few who came by boat.It's a journey that's taken him from home to Senegal, for six months, then Mali for a year, Algeria and Libya, all the while doing piecework to move on. In Tripoli he was arrested on suspicion of being a Gaddafi mercenary. Twice. After three unsuccessful attempts, he finally made it across the Mediterranean to Italy.It's not a country he chose, but the boat was going away from the continent, "and the direction was Italy". Many are unlikely to acquire "legal" status, their skills not deemed critical, their countries not considered at war or under a recognised repressive regime."I think the ghetto in South Africa is good. Here, the ghetto is much worse," says Sagnet.Order in this mini-city is kept by the caporale, a man employed by the farmer to supply labour. Usually an occupant of one of the "capitals", the caporale ensures that his workers have shelter, food and water, and are shuttled to and from work. All of these expenses are paid out of the wages, which are handled by the caporale.Sagnet has spoken to local media and recently completed a book to denounce the practice, and he's forced to beat a hasty retreat in Grande Ghetto when he's informed by the "madames" at the stalls that the caporales are gunning for him.full_story_image_hleft3As we leave, Sagnet is clearly frustrated. "Here it is like we're back 40 years ago, like slaves."Europe is trying to stem the tide of African migrants, which has increased significantly since the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the chaos left in the aftermath. Recently it offered African countries $1.9-billion (about R27-billion) in aid money to help stem the flow of migrants.Throughout the scenic southern Italian countryside, deep down the tarred thoroughfares, there are many more ghettos. And as we leave down the scrabble of dirt roads, two more men, one dragging behind him a dusty suitcase, tramp towards the ghetto.

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