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Inside African migrants’ fight against ‘slave-like’ conditions in Italy

Some 13,000 migrants, mainly from Africa, have landed in Italy so far this year — three times the number from the same period in 2020. The struggle for migrants doesn't end when they reach European shores. Senior Producer Adam Raney reports from southern Italy on how migrant farmworkers are fighting for visibility and better working conditions amid the pandemic.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some 13,000 migrants, mainly from Africa, have landed in Italy so far this year, three times the number from the same period in 2020.

    The struggle for migrants does not end when they reach European shores.

    Our senior producer Adam Raney reports from Southern Italy on how, amid the pandemic, migrant farmworkers are fighting for visibility and better working conditions.

  • Adam Raney:

    After working 13 years in Italy's fields, this is what Nigerian farmworker Rita Godwin has to show for it, a one-room shack in a rural slum in Southern Italy. There's no running water, electricity or trash removal. And after fetching water, she treats it by boiling it with herbs.

  • Rita Godwin:

    If we don't do this, we will fall sick every blessed day. So, we boil it, we drink it, so that we don't fall sick.

  • Adam Raney:

    In 2008, Rita made the risky sea crossing to Italy. She left two children behind, and sends money when she can. Working in the fields leaves her little for anything else.

    Do you feel stuck here?

  • Rita Godwin:

    Yes, because, you know, in my country, I have never lived in this kind of environment.

  • Adam Raney:

    Farmworker Abdulai Issmail came from Ghana thinking life would be better in Italy, the country of his dreams, of soccer, food, and fashion.

  • Abdulai Issmail:

    I always feel shame when anybody call me outside. I don't like video call, because of the place I am living. It's very shameful for me for someone to see where I am living.

  • Adam Raney:

    There are more than 80 settlements like this across Italy.

    Some 2,000 people live in this camp alone. And the people we spoke to say they feel stuck because they don't have access to legal work documents, which keeps them from getting better-paying jobs and makes it very hard for them to afford a place of their own.

    Another migrant, Sadio from Senegal, takes us on a tour of the shantytown, or ghetto, as they call it.

  • Sadio (through translator):

    Life here is inhumane. This is not a humane life. Look around. The truth is, many people here live in extremely difficult conditions.

  • Adam Raney:

    Sadio told us most migrant farmworkers only make around 35 euros a day, and that's before paying a mafia middleman five to 10 euros to secure work in the fields.

    The fight for dignified legal work free from mafia control came to the fore in the pandemic. Last spring, during Italy's first strict lockdown, farmworkers were deemed essential workers. But, without work papers, they had no documents to show police patrols enforcing the lockdown.

    So they weren't allowed to leave the shantytowns to go out to work in the fields, precisely at a time when Italy needed more of them. A charismatic leader, Aboubakar Soumahoro, has led protests up and down Italy throughout the pandemic.

    A former farmworker from Ivory Coast, he called attention to the self-proclaimed invisibles, migrants toiling in the fields out of sight and out of mind to most Italians. Race, he says, is clearly a factor in their treatment.

  • Aboubakar Soumahoro (through translator):

    The workers are often paid a low wage based on the color of their skin or because of the countries they come from. It's the immigration laws that create this exploitative situation, because work contracts are tied to resident permits.

    If you refuse what they're offering, you won't get a contract. So workers are squeezed and have to accept the conditions.

  • Adam Raney:

    Savvy on social media, Soumahoro led strikes and called for systemic change. He communicates daily with hundreds of thousands of followers.

  • Aboubakar Soumahoro (through translator):

    There are no rights. There's no dignity. There are just workers to be exploited, to be enslaved.

  • Adam Raney:

    Migrants had the backing of Pope Francis, and Soumahoro managed to meet then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

    Last may, fearing food and labor shortages, Italy passed a law intended to legalize more than 200,000 undocumented migrants, offering them contracts or temporary work permits. But the law was seen by many as a failure. More than 85 percent of the people it benefited were domestic workers, not farmworkers.

    Tired of waiting for true reform, some migrants are now taking a different route. Complete with a jingle, one group, Ghetto Out, launched their own line of canned tomatoes, a product that is at the root of Italy's pasta-based cuisine. It's the first such Italian product made by migrants themselves.

    The name, R'accolto, is a play on the words harvest and welcome. The label also plays on the product's fair trade appeal. A Black hand holds the most traditional of Italian foods, a tomato, above the phrase "Land of Freedom," a nod to the migrants feeling liberated after years of working in what many of them call slave-like conditions.

    Papa Latyr Faye, one of Ghetto Out's founders, is from Senegal.

  • Papa Latyr Faye (through translator):

    You have to understand the story behind this product, because our main goal was not just a can of tomatoes, but to show that immigrants have arrived on the scene and should be seen in a different light.

  • Adam Raney:

    Faye says this is just the first of many migrant-led projects he hopes to launch.

  • Papa Latyr Faye (through translator):

    So, we took the reins ourselves. We realized that only we could solve our problems, working together.

  • Adam Raney:

    With a vision in hand, Ghetto Out needed a partner. They found it in Coop, a chain of cooperative supermarkets that agreed to sell the product across Italy.

  • Carmelo Rollo (through translator):

    We would like it to become the model of tomorrow.

  • Adam Raney:

    Carmelo Rollo is a regional president for the cooperative.

  • Carmelo Rollo (through translator):

    We are showing that immigrants are extraordinarily important for the life of a country. So we stand up for the dignity of people who allow the country to grow up. This is an intrinsic value for Coop, which sees them as the ideal players to shape their own future.

  • Adam Raney:

    Ghetto Out has also built its own camp, providing housing and services for 500 migrants, many of whom used to live in the slums. They also help migrants secure residency permits.

    Ghetto Out has had success working in the system, receiving land use grants and funding from the regional government and the European Union. It's still a small niche, though, and it comes with a price: Their products might appeal to consumers' ethics, but not their pocketbooks.

    R'accolto is more than twice as expensive as many other canned tomatoes in the supermarket, a hard sell in a deep recession. Italian food and agriculture is a $500 billion business that brings Italy's produce to the world's most refined tables. It's also one of small profit margins, with big supermarket chains squeezing costs and workers to maximize profit.

    The people who come up short are those at the bottom.

  • Fabio Ciconte:

    There is something changing. Migrants are speaking out.

  • Adam Raney:

    Fabio Ciconte is the director of Terra, a nonprofit focused on agribusiness and environmental issues.

    Ciconte sees some positive signs.

  • Fabio Ciconte:

    If we combine the fight of the migrants with the fight for an ethical supply chain, I think we can win the fight for justice.

  • Adam Raney:

    Leaders like Aboubakar Soumahoro acknowledge they have a long way to go, but say they have forced Italy to finally confront racism and injustice in the fields.

  • Aboubakar Soumahoro (through translator):

    If, today, Italy is talking about the conditions of the farmworkers, it's because we have forced it on the country's agenda. No one has given us anything.

  • Adam Raney:

    A year into the pandemic, migrants are paving the way.

    Yet, as harvest season approaches, Rita's slum keeps growing, making space for migrants with few other places to go.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Adam Raney in Puglia, Italy.

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