Foggia-Sliven, return: Notes for a militant inquiry on ‘the other workers’

Rete Campagne in Lotta, February 2015

Since 2012, as a militant network we have been supporting the self-organisation of workers (so-called ‘stranieri’ [foreigners]) in the Italian agro-industrial countryside. So we have been traversing this landscape – from Piedmont to Calabria, through Apulia and Basilicata – following seasonal labour routes and making contact with those who work the land for little money, but also with those who perform care-work, often of a sexual nature and, obviously, at an equally low price. These are workers who live in conditions of extreme precarity and ghettoization. We have used many tools – from Italian language lessons to itinerant libraries, from pirate radio stations to cycle workshops, from legal advice to the distribution of self-produced information material in various languages on work, visas and health. Together with workers we have organised demonstrations and pickets, we have written statements and participated in meetings. An important aspect of this political and human project is the inquiry into and analysis of the dynamics we encounter through practices of solidarity and conflict. We are convinced that only a rigorous understanding of these incredibly complex and mutable phenomena can lead to the elaboration of effective forms of struggle. Thus struggle and research are not two separate practices: in a certain sense, they are different ways of doing the same thing. It is for this reason that we undertook the journey these reflections are based on.

Everything began in the Capitanata area – in the ‘Table of the Apulias’, infamous for the extreme exploitation of the tomato pickers who work there. For the last few years, the mainstream media have presented us with the spectacle of the exploitation of the non-European worker, in Capitanata and elsewhere – a particularly glaring case being that of Rosarno, which periodically hits the headlines since riots erupted there, for the second time, in january 2010. The morbid and continuous re-presentation of images of ‘African ghettoes’ in newspapers and on websites is one with the progressive organisation of a lucrative humanitarian machine in which various apparatuses – the government, trade-union confederations, local administrations and third-sector organisations – deliver (just about) survival-level ‘care’ whilst at the same time enclosing, containing and controlling. With the compliance of many from north to south, ‘emergency’ labour camps are proliferating to ‘host’ this excess of labourers. Already sizeable as a consequence of migration policies and more generally of a global system in which territories and people are exploited, the swelling of this population was exacerbated as a result of the economic crisis, as well as in the aftermath of the NATO-sponsored ‘humanitarian’ wars and their spillovers, which are forcing many Sub-Saharan Africans present in Libya to cross the Mediterranean.

But there is a backstage to the spectacle presented by the media. If you find your way behind the scenes, you discover a much more complex reality, in which many agricultural workers are Europeans, and even members of the EU. For diverse reasons, such as the way in which their mobility follows seasonal rhythms across borders, they are less visible. Sometimes they rent accommodation in villages or stay in abandoned farmhouses near their workplaces. Usually, they are made to pay very high rents despite living in overcrowded buildings without facilities. Along with the ‘African shantytowns’, then, we discover Bulgarian and Romanian ones. We’ve known for a few years that many of the tomato pickers are Roma: entire families, sometimes with small children. But in the summer of 2014 we finally enter the ‘ghetto’ of Borgo Tressanti, that has risen up next to an incinerator and that houses about 300 people– men, women and transvestites – from Bulgaria, who live in makeshift shacks. It is likely that amongst these people there are those who regularly perform sex work, at least judging from the presence of Roma women on the streets of Capitanata (just like on the streets of the Gioia Tauro and Sibari Plains, in Calabria, where citrus plantations employ a large number of extremely precarious seasonal workers). The prefecture of Foggia has talked about evicting the shantytown for some time, but it has yet to act. Its inhabitants, as with many similar dwellings, don’t really want to talk: in all likelihood some caporali [illegal gangmasters] live amongst them. But one thing is certain: everyone comes from the same city, Sliven. Some weeks later, we receive a telephone call from one of them: his boss isn’t paying the wages. We organise a meeting. There are three of them: two men and a woman, all young. Together we try to speak with the owner of the farm where they were working, who in the end reluctantly gives in.

For some time we have been in contact with comrades in Bulgaria, mostly researchers that are part of one of the two social centres in Sofia. Together, we are beginning a project of militant research, and so it seemed natural for us to go to Sliven with their help. A city of about 100,000 people, of which about 30,000 are Roma (of course a porous category), Sliven has a long tradition of textile manufacture (as well as other industries). These obviously collapsed with the Soviet bloc, but were revitalised by an Italian entrepreneur from Alba, in the province of Cuneo, Italy. Edoardo Miroglio is a celebrity in Sliven: as well as his various factories he also owns a thriving and renowned wine business and a luxurious hotel. And he is one of the main foreign investors in the country. Despite this, few Roma benefit from the ‘opportunity’ (if you can call it that, seeing the rather miserable salaries of the employees) afforded by his factories, or from the offers of other foreign investors such as the Japanese Yazaki, a firm that produces electric circuits for cars. ‘The Roma are not educated’ – during our stay in Sliven, this is the mantra that was repeated by everyone, Roma and gazdho [non-Roma] alike. And even when they are educated they are discriminated against, so that it is rare that they get work. Many don’t even have access to health services: in Bulgaria, the law says that everyone must have private health insurance, which for employed workers is paid partly by the employer and partly through a deduction from the worker’s salary. If unemployed, Bulgarian citizens can subscribe to social services and then have a right to insurance and to a minimum monthly benefit (24 Euros). But, in the best of neoliberal traditions, not only must they be unemployed for at least six months to receive benefits, but they must also do unpaid part-time work for at least fourteen days a month. And so those who take up the income opportunity offered by precarious and badly paid work (even in foreign countries) don’t have any kind of insurance. Even if hospitals should attend to patients in all cases, and can get reimbursements from the state, often they refuse to provide care. And the ambulances, when called, never come to the areas where the Roma live – just like in the ghettoes of Italy, whether they be those inhabited by Roma or by people from Africa. Yet, those who have experiences of migration in Western Europe – and in the two Roma areas of Sliven there are many, men and women – invariably tell us of how well they were looked after, even in the hospitals of southern Italy, despite all kinds of structural difficulties and discrimination. Despite a possible tendency to idealise elsewhere, this goes a long way to explain how bad the situation must be in Sliven.

Getting out of the taxi in Nadezhda, the most populous Roma area, we are greeted by a guy with a tattooed face who speaks to us in Italian, and by another man who asks us if we believe in Jesus. Probably he thinks that we are missionaries from some Evangelical church, which are very widespread in this area. The health worker employed by the municipality explains to us that of 20,000 official inhabitants of the neighbourhood, 8,000 have left ‘to seek their fortune’. But from Nadezhda, which literally means ‘hope’, there are only a few families that go to Italy, perhaps about ten, the area’s councillor later tells us. Here many people speak Turkish, and for this reason they choose Germany, where they can find employment through the large and well-connected Turkish community. Others go to Spain or Greece. Many are employed in seasonal labour, principally in the agricultural sector and in construction, others work in factories, or, if they are women, as caregivers. It is mainly the ‘Turks’ and the ‘musicians’ of the area that leave. The so-called ‘naked Roma’ – the most poor and marginalised in the city since the 1800s – cannot even afford to migrate, just like those who have recently moved into the city from the nearby village of Gradez who, we are told, often end up in prison.

 Those who go to Italy are from the other ‘Roma’ neighbourhood, Nikola Kochev, climbing between the city centre and the mountains, or from the nearby villages of Sotirya, Nova Zagora and Tvarditsa. Before 1989, many of the residents of Nikola Kochev worked in factories, and for this reason, we are told, they are more ‘integrated’. Here, the first person that we are introduced to through our Bulgarian comrade –patient translator and brilliant guide – says that yes, many people go to Italy to work, but he doesn’t want to talk about it because some people in this area make money from it and he doesn’t want to get into trouble. But then we talk at length with a man looking out from the window of his house, who worked in Italy for many years, and who then asks us in. It has been years now since he and his family last went to Italy – it had become more of a burden than a means of sustenance. As he and his wife were in charge of the group, if the boss didn’t pay them they had to take the money out of their own pockets in order to placate the other workers. And then, in Foggia, the Carabinieri (military police) confiscated the van they used for their trips: these cost 600 euros altogether, divided among eight people, who were all part of the same extended family. Now his wife works in the Japanese factory, for 225 Euros a month. From Sliven, people leave not only to Capitanata, but also to the Sibari or the Gioia Tauro Plains in Calabria, two areas notorious for the working conditions of migrants, and to Naples. Our hosts give us the names of lots of bosses and middlemen, and show us the contracts, payslips and tax codes of the whole family. In Sibari a part of the workers’ wages is deducted by the Italian agency, leaving the labourers with 30 Euros per day, from which another 5 Euros is deducted to pay for national insurance. In Foggia, on the other hand, everything is cash-in-hand. For lodgings, they say in Sibari the agency demanded 120 Euros a month, whilst in Foggia they paid 100 Euros directly to the owner of the farm – prices that will be confirmed by others. Obviously food is not included.

More than one person tells us that a few years ago wages were higher, you could get up to 7 Euros per hour or per tomato crate of 300 kg, but in the last few years it got worse and worse – to the point that those who can look for work elsewhere. In Foggia, they tell us, it was the Ukrainians, or the Romanians, that spoilt everything: it is them who started to impose themselves as intermediaries with the landowners, demanding a cut from salaries. However, many continue to go back and forth from Sliven according to the harvest seasons. In both neighbourhoods, the economic effects of migration are clearly visible: migrants’ houses, at least some of them, are recently built ,freshly painted and elaborately decorated. People we talk to always tell us of autonomously organised journeys, at a cost that varies between 40 and 70 Euros per person each way. But we know, from conversations we had in Foggia and through somebody’s hints, that from Sliven some can pay up to 300 Euros for a return trip. And we have a feeling that, although few would admit it, some people organise the whole package for workers – ‘caporali’, or gangmasters, once again. Almost everybody complains about employers’ vexations, and those who don’t are identified by the others as a ‘capo’.

What is more, forms of exploitation vary also according to those involved: whilst Romas rely on fellow members of their community to find work abroad, also gadzho Bulgarians leave to Italy, but through other channels. On a local ad newspaper, one can find offers of jobs in Italy from dubious ‘agencies’. Our travel companion takes up the challenge: calling the number on one such ad, he is greeted by a less than friendly female voice who asks whether the person interested in the job is a man or a woman. For men, she explains, there is work in orange and mandarin picking, or in food storage warehouses. In the first case, the salary is one euro per crate (as it indeed is the case in Calabria, a crate weighing 20 kg), in the second it is 30 Euros per day. Accommodation costs 100 Euros per month, and to leave with a minivan from Sofia (each thursday and friday) one must pay 350 Euros. There is work all year round, says the representative of the agency, Italy is a very large country where all land is cultivated. Our friend’s request of an employment contract isn’t met with much enthusiasm – it can be done, if it is really necessary. And one can have the contacts of the Italian employees, but usually it is the agency that takes care of it because of the language. Such ads are very frequent, and often the work and living conditions that those who leave find in Italy are much harder than expected. In many cases, as we ourselves witnessed, workers are deceived and underpaid, or not paid at all. The same happened to some people from Sliven, who in 2013 worked as day farm labourers in France via an agency. Despite the fact that in the last decade several such cases have surfaced – such as the one of Polish workers who disappeared in the Apulian countryside, as Alessandro Leogrande recounts in his book “Uomini e Caporali” – nothing seems to really change, apart from the nationality of those who are exploited and then substituted, especially after someone dares to complain.

A separate chapter concerns the female workforce: also in this case, our conversations with people in Sliven confirm what we already knew from Italy. If you are not sexually available to the boss, you risk losing work. An elderly man, whom his brother has summoned for us to hear his story, explains: ‘in the farms in Foggia, men and women were divided. Men were sent to work further away, whilst women remained close to the boss’ house. After a few days, the harassment began.’ More than one person, among social workers and institutional figures, also tells us how Sliven is considered a ‘capital of prostitution’. In town, it is women and transvestites, the majority of whom are Roma, that offer sexual services for a fee, in the market area. But on newspapers one can find rather explicit ads by young women offering their services for some ten Euros. Here as in many other places, sexual labour is considered a moral taboo, and those who engage in it are treated as criminals – or, in the best case scenario, as victims to be saved. As in Italy, here prostitution is also decriminalised, but its exploitation is illegal and local authorities find ways to fine street prostitutes for road-safety or similar offences. Roma communities’ representatives are keen to highlight how in their culture prostitution is considered immoral, that those who engage in it do it because of ‘economic and social problems’, and that they are in any case marginalised by the community. Or they deny that women (or men) from their own neighbourhood engage in such activities. ‘In Nadezhda we are traditionalists’, explains the health worker. ‘It is those from Nikola Kochev that engage in prostitution, because they are more integrated and modern’. Many women from Sliven – be they Roma or gadzho – sell sexual services in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands or Germany, where sex work is legal and regulated. On Italy, however, no information is forthcoming.

Prostitution remains a thorny political issue, with moral judgements and paternalistic attitudes, together with a screen of denial, as cultural hurdles that are hard to overcome. Furthermore, the global ‘anti-trafficking’ dispositif has ramifications here too: in Bulgaria a National Commission on the Trafficking of Human Beings has been appointed, with several representatives at the local level – within town-hall administration, the regional prosecutor’s office, in non-governmental organisations. Almost all those whom we come across in this domain seem rather confused as to the definition of trafficking, and often take it for granted that all prostitutes must necessarily be victims – as in a well-rehearsed abolitionist script. But as a matter of fact, it was impossible for the public prosecutors to demonstrate that trafficking actually took place: all the cases they have examined concern disputes between prostitutes and their pimps, often their own husbands, for matters regarding the sharing of the job’s earnings. ‘Earlier’, another health worker explains, ‘women were forced to leave and sell sex abroad, now it is them who are looking for such opportunity themselves’. For her, this is inconceivable, and it is something that must be tackled through ‘prevention’ work, of which all members of the Commission are keen advocates. The health worker meets our stories on the presence of Roma women (presumably from Sliven) on Italian roads with wide eyes and a somewhat contrived surprise that leaves us surprised in turn. For us, it is obvious that the choice between poorly paid farm work, which includes free sexual labour under the employer’s threats, and prostitution – which, whilst surely not idyllic work, is certainly more remunerative – might fall on the latter option. It is hard to delve into such stigmatised problems without reference to a wider and complex context, where bodies are exploited in all their capacities.

In Sliven, they look at us with curiosity. Hospitality – which is neither due nor taken for granted – often comes naturally and makes it easier for us to explain the reasons for our visit and ask our questions. Talking with people on the streets, or as guests in their homes, we try to add some more pieces to the puzzle we have started to put together in the Italian agro-industrial countryside some years ago. We share contacts and information, in the hope that our visit might be a step forward in the difficult direction of the struggle against conditions of extreme exploitation. Even from fleeting encounters, or by observing the materialities of discrimination and impoverishment, we feel as if we were able to touch the concrete effects of European policies and world markets. Despite the distance from Foggia, San Ferdinando or Corigliano Calabro, forms of apartheid and precarisation aren’t different, and make these places all but peripheral in the organisation of the global economy. The processes that make these ‘other workers’ invisible, also through the spectacularisation of the ‘African’ victims of ruthless gangmasters (themselves African, and always without a boss), is essential to keep a system founded on extreme vulnerability running, in Italy as in Bulgaria and many other places.

In our intentions, this short but eye-opening trip is but the beginning of a long journey of research and struggle that we are yet to embark on. A journey which will surely take us to other places, similar to and at the same time completely different from this one – in order to build and expand networks, relationships, forms of struggle and knowledge.

Here you can find the original copy of this article in Italian.