Migrants harvesting tomatoes, living in pathetic conditions

Campaigners dub them as ‘Europe’s Tomato Slaves’

2nd September 2011: Migrant workers across Italy working in farmhouses to harvest tomatoes are living in pathetic and inhumane conditions.

The investigations carried out by Ecologist reveal the immigrants working in the farmhouses have minimal contact with world outside and live in unhygienic conditions.

In the dry countryside outside the town of Venosa, in Basilicata, southern Italy, there are a chain of ruined farmhouses.

Dense and in bad condition, the slums are in fact home to several hundred migrant workers about to harvest the region’s abundant tomato crop. The Ecologist investigation has divulged how the profitable trade is destroyed by exploitation and abuse.

The workers – some of them illegal immigrants – are forced to sweat it out for up to 14 hours a day, picking tomatoes in harsh conditions for paltry wages.

The work is done often under the control of a network of ‘gang masters’ who make extreme subtractions or charge blown up rates for transport, accommodation, food and other ‘services’. Infact, those daring to complain can face violence and bullying.

Workers normally live in awful nastiness and home is often a in a dilapidated, building without power or any form of effective sanitation.

As many as thirty people can be packed into a single, filthy, one floor house. Healthcare is virtually non-existent and contact with the outside world negligible.    

So bad are the living and working conditions, tolerated by the migrants, that campaigners have dubbed them ‘Europe’s tomato slaves’.

Conditions are so unfortunate that the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – more usually associated with providing medical aid in clash zones – has sent mobile clinics to treat migrants in some areas, and issued a scornful report describing the workers’ experiences as ‘hell’.

Every August, thousands mostly from Africa, some from Eastern Europe, come down to southern Italy to mark a living, picking tomatoes.

The tomatoes are eventually processed and exported across Europe – including to the UK – to be sold in tins, or as pastes, purees and even used as an ingredient in other food products.  

Most look out for the dangerous employment in order to send money to family back home. But find themselves caught up in a vicious twirl of poverty and exploitation.

Unable to save sufficiently to transfer any money – or pay for a flight out of Europe – the workers get caught up in the mess 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, work hard 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.

Shelters for cheaters

East European Workers, overseas students not immigrants: Keith Vaz