FLAI-CGIL launches campaign to stop exploitation in Italian tomato fields
Every summer around 50,000 migrant workers, many of them undocumented, are brought by labour agents to Italy for the tomato harvest. The crop is key to the Italian economy and to production of world-famous Italian products like canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Yet the workers who harvest the tomatoes work in dangerous conditions often in breach of Italian labour law. Some, through violence and threats, end up virtually enslaved. They risk their lives when they try to escape or denounce the criminals who exploit them.
IUF affiliate FLAI-CGIL has for many years documented and denounced the phenomenon. The union has called on the Italian Government to take concrete action but to-date nothing has changed. So this year FLAI-CGIL decided it had to change tactics and launched the “Red Gold” campaign to fight these exploitative employment practices, to raise awareness amongst workers of their rights and to encourage them to join the union.
From August 2-12 2009, 70 FLAI and CGIL union officers spent from dawn until dusk in the tomato fields of the Foggia province. They met thousands of men and women workers in the fields, talked about rights, distributed leaflets about legal pay rates in 15 languages, and tried to organize the tomato workers into the union.
Union workshops, public debates, concerts and were held in the city of Foggia and surrounding villages to involve the local community.
The FLAI-CGIL campaign not only challenges the ruthless labour agents who exploit migrant workforce, but also the repressive security laws recently passed by the Italian Parliament. It highlights the absence of the labour inspectors to implement labour law and the agriculture collective agreement. These circumstances ultimately benefit labour agents and ruthless employers by favouring the black labour market.
“We mobilized our union at all levels because it is time to denounce the practices employed in agriculture in our country and because we believe we need to be physically side-by-side with the workers to do so” said Salvatore Lo Balbo, FLAI National Secretary for Agriculture. “We ask that the Italian Government, the relevant institutions and the employers to implement the necessary legal measures to break the exploitation cycle and favour the legalization of migrant agriculture workers“, he added.
Tomato production in Italy is big business – Italy produces just under 3 million tons of tomatoes every year, with production concentrated in the Puglia and Emilia-Romagna regions.
The FLAI-CGIL initiative will clearly work against the producers’ interests and they have already made it clear that they are not going to stand idly by. On August 6 (fourth day of the campaign), a tomato farmer of Sannicandro Garganico tried to drive his truck into one of the FLAI-CGIL cars, threw stones and threatened 30 unionists while they were giving out union leaflets and information on legal wage levels to 20 Romanian workers harvesting tomatoes at the rate of 3 € per 300 kg box.