The migration of Africans to Europe is one of the toughest journeys as some lose their lives in the waters of the Mediterranean or get turned away once they land in Europe.
For those who make it, they have to adopt a new form of survival. They not only need to look for work but also avoid deportation. Work without papers is rare and far in between, and many opt for any types of jobs, usually those shunned by Europeans. One of these jobs is fruit picking in Italy.
The job comes with low wages but is relatively easy to get because Italians have moved from the countryside and have refused to work with such little money.
According to an Aljazeera report, about 2,500 African migrants work in Rosarno, an agricultural hub where fruits such as tangerines, oranges, olives and kiwis thrive.
But life for these immigrants is far from ideal. They live in shacks made from wood, cardboard and metal. They have neither water nor electricity and have had to build their own makeshift toilets or relieve themselves in the fields.
Aside from these pitiful living conditions, the migrants have also had to deal with racism and exploitation by the Italians.
There have been protests over racial attacks on workers, including what was termed as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the area and as recent as last month, a gunman opened fire on a few immigrants who were collecting scrap metal.
The workers are signed up in a system known as ‘caporalato‘ also called gangmaster, where legal and illegal migrants are put into informal labour groups that are then hired by landowners to harvest fruits and vegetables.
Companies have been taken to court for benefiting from “conditions of absolute exploitation” and others have been investigated for contributing to the death of African workers, such as Mohammed Abdulla from Sudan who suffered a heart attack in 2015 as he worked under 40 degrees Celsius.
The caporalato system was outlawed but is still widespread across Italy, even after the government started a crackdown in 2016.
Under the system, the workers earn as little as $1.17 (one euro) a day. They also miss out on resting days as they end up working on Sundays as well. Those who practice Islam would also be expected to work the same hours during Ramadan, and if they fainted no one would be available to help them.
In 2017, when the hours in some farms in Turin were increased without commensurate pay, a Cameroonian worker, Pierre Yvan Sagnet persuaded the other workers to down their tools. They were able to negotiate for better pay, but workers in other farms were not as lucky.
Rights groups have blamed supermarkets for the continuous exploitation of African migrant workers as they focus on quantity and cheap prices that make them competitive.
The treatment of African workers in Italy comes at a time when Europe is grappling with ‘immigration crisis’, with far-right minister Matteo Salvini calling for European Union Sea Mission to take immigrants elsewhere.