The state of the Italian agricultural economy is not different from the rest of Europe. The strong decrease of prices paid to the farmers for their products has been generating an endemic crisis that goes on since many years, and has become even worse with the growth of prices on gasoline and fertilizers. As a consequence of the same global crisis thousands of workers from abroad, especially from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and Southern Asia came to Italian farmlands. Their working conditions are often terrible. As they move from crop to crop according to the harvest season, many of them live in camps where sanitary fittings, hot and drinkable water, and electricity are often not available. In addition, they easily become a target and a source of profit for big and small criminal organizations in whole national territory.
In Southern Italy, the tomatoes and watermelons harvest-time is particularly important, nourishing both legal and illegal economy. The _caporale_ (gangmaster) is a key figure there. He has the (illegal) power to pick the workers every morning and drive them to the fields, getting a percentage of their salaries for this “service”. This role is recognized by the landlords and often imposed to them by mafia organisations. Migrant rural workers have to suffer from a double blackmail: they cannot have a legal position in the Italian state as they work “under the table” and because of this they are forced to accept rates that are quite below the Union’s minimum salary.
When the struggle began, the situation in Nardò (a small agricultural center in the Apulia region, Southeastern Italy) was critical. The farm workers were earning just 4 euros per hour, while the minimum wage ranges between 6 and 10 euros, and were constantly under pressure to do more. On the 31st of July, 2011 a group of forty workers started a strike that immediately involved almost the whole migrant farm workers community. It was the first spontaneous and completely self-managed migrant farm workers strike in Italy.
The strike went on for thirteen days, during which the Active Solidarity Brigades (Brigate di Solidarietà Attiva), who were volunteering in the migrants’ camp, collected a strike fund to sustain the struggle. The Brigades had been camping in the area in the Summer of 2010 too, in order to establish links with the migrants by providing them both legal and material support. According to the Brigades, the confidence built up between the Italian activists and the labourers helped in triggering the strike in 2011.
As a result, they gained the local authority commitment to provide, for Summer 2012, the transportation of the workers to the fields and the establishment of an official list which should allow the farms to hire them directly, without any mediation by the gangmasters. Furthermore and most importantly, the national government made a law that punishes the gangmasters with conviction, and not anymore with a simple fine. But this, according to the migrant workers, is far from being enough.