ROME - Two demonstrations and a strike were being held Wednesday in southern Italy to protest the exploitation of farm workers. The events followed the deaths of 16 migrant agricultural workers in two incidents in less than a week.
The first demonstration was held in the morning. More than 200 migrants staged a strike and marched from a camp in San Severo, known as the "Great Ghetto," to Foggia in southern Italy. Many wore "red caps" used by tomato pickers to shield themselves from the scorching summer sun.
They called for an end to a system that exploits agricultural workers. Marching along country roads, they chanted slogans including "stop deaths on the job" and "slaves no more." A similar demonstration was being planned for the afternoon in Foggia.
The protests were organized following two traffic accidents near Foggia in the past week in which 16 migrant agricultural workers were killed. In one of the incidents just two days ago, 12 migrants were killed as they traveled home after a day of work in their packed van. They were all from North Africa.
Both accidents took place near Foggia, where thousands of migrant workers pick tomatoes at this time of the year in the surrounding countryside.
Agricultural workers must pay their drivers more than $5 for transportation to work — a payment that should not exist, they say, as their travel should come out of the employers' pockets. The intermediaries, many linked to organized crime, also collect a portion of the workers' pay.
Italy has long had a problem with immigrant vegetable and fruit pickers working and living in disgraceful and unacceptable conditions. In addition to being paid very little for the work they do, they have no contracts or benefits. Most live in squalid conditions in makeshift camps without running water, electricity or waste disposal.
A report on agro-Mafia and exploitation of workers published in July by the Placido Rizzotto observatory of the labor union CGIL said there are between 400,000 and 430,000 agricultural workers at risk of exploitation in Italy. It added that 39 percent are hired illegally and that exploited migrant workers can earn less than $4 for a 375-kilogram box of tomatoes.
Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, met with some of the agricultural workers on Tuesday and held a security meeting in Foggia.
He said the illegal hiring and exploitation of workers — despite what's been said in recent years — has not been defeated, and remains a big business for the Mafia. He added that as interior minister he would make some proposals to seriously deal with the situation.
Salvini also said that in Foggia, there is Mafia criminality that he plans to eradicate street by street, town by town, and by all the means that are legally available.