“What I lived on my skin during those days in Nardò was indescribable and changed my life forever.”
For Yvan Sagnet, engineer and former agricultural picker from Cameroon, five days were enough to understand that behind the hell of the farmlands in Nardò (Lecce), were he had gone in the summer of 2011 to work at the seasonal harvest of tomatoes, was hiding a much more rooted and structural phenomenon of illegality: the one of caporalato, rebelling against which was a duty.
During his speech at the Faculty of Economics of Tor Vergata University, Yvan Sagnet repeatedly used the words “ghetto” and “lager” to describe the distinctive places of Italian caporalato, an entrenched and extensive reality that, thanks to the silence and complicity of local institutions and authorities, keeps on existing and feeding the unacceptable exploitation of thousands of men and women, slaves of an agricultural economy that “tends towards depriving people of dignity” by forcing them to work in inhuman, appalling conditions for an indecently little salary.
When, in 2011, Yvan went to Nardò, in Puglia, to work and pay back his studies in Turin, were he was attending a degree course in Engineering (Politecnico di Torino), he had no idea of what was waiting for him. He told the audience about arriving to the welcoming centre for seasonal workers in Nardò, which he had then rebaptized as “ghetto”, and founding himself immersed in an unhuman and disconcerting reality made of degradation, unliveable conditions, plastic and paper-made huts and mattresses laying all around. “I remember arriving there after many hours of travel, tired and sweat. Summer in southern Italy is hot and humid and I wanted to have a shower, but the camp had only five toilets for its 1200 hosts and I had to wait in line for four hours before I could wash myself.”
The bosses of that hellhole are the caporali, “former pickers that made a career” and in Nardò are mostly foreigners. They like to be called after famous people’s nicknames and Yvan’s was Silvio Berlusconi. Nevertheless, the real engines of this mechanism are the agricultural entrepreneurs who, by turning to the caporali to find low-cost workforce, confer them their absolute power. The caporali indeed, manage the labour market and the economy within the camp and are often considered as points of reference or benefactors by those who work for them and are willing to be recruited at any cost, moved by conditions of extreme poverty and dramatic precarity. In fact, the caporali replace the State where the latter is lacking or defective: they are welfare sources, they are “mobile job centres” that make illicit workforce brokering activities.
How is a typical day of a tomato’s pickers in Nardò like? The caporali arrive early in the morning with some trucks. Workers have to pay them a transport tax of 5 euros and it is forbidden to reach the plantations autonomously. The trucks, designed to carry up to nine people, are filled with 20-30 people; there are no seats, neither windows because the “shipment” mustn’t be visible from the outside. Once arrived, they start to work tirelessly. The pickers are paid according to the piecework model (the Italian cottimo), therefore proportionally to the number of boxes of tomatoes they have filled. Each trunk can contain up to 300 Kg of tomatoes: for each trunk filled, the pay is 3 euros. “There are special techniques that skilled pickers have developed after years of picking. Being totally inexperienced, the first day I was the slowest and after a few minutes I would feel pain in my back, in my knees, in my arms. The sun was burning on my neck, but I couldn’t stop.” There are further taxes that the workers are compelled to pay their boss: the food is provided by the caporale for 3,50 euros and water costs 1,50 euros: also in this case, nobody can bring its own food and water. Therefore, at the end of the day, around 10 euros of obligatory expenses must be deducted from the pay. “The first day I went back to the ghetto with only 4 euros in my pocket. I was tired and frustrated”, Yvan tells us.
Yvan Sagnet decided that he had had enough of that system after his fifth day there.
That day, a co-worker of him had fainted for overworking and the caporale had asked 50 euros to bring him to the nearest hospital. Indeed, the plantations are often very isolated and difficult to reach, phone signal hardly works, and the workers are therefore completely dependent on the will of the caporali, that use their superiority to blackmail their subordinates and to exploit their condition of subjugation. After that episode, Sagnet decided he had to rebel: caporalato was beyond exploitation, it was pure slavery.
The strike organized by Yvan Sagnet and his companions started the 31st of July 2011 and lasted about two months. “The protest was very hard to start because in the camp people were mostly from Africa but speak different languages. What is more, some of them were afraid about losing the only, even though meagre, source of profit while others were scared by the death threats that the bosses started addressing us.” Despite all the difficulties though, the agricultural workers of Nardò, victims of an unjust system made of slavery and underpaid work, started the first strike of foreign workers in the history of caporalato, and became the pioneers of a movement of rebellion aimed at the reaffirmation of an ethical industry which finally regarded them as partners of a productive process and no longer as means but, most of all, careful about the rights and the dignity of its workers. The strike could last and be effective also thanks to the support of trade unions (CGIL), volunteering associations (Finis Terrae, Brigate di solidarietà attiva) and local people, that supplied the strikers with food and solidarity in such a delicate moment. The rebellion drew the attention of the public opinion and for the first time the spotlights were put on the claims of a forgotten working class, fighting for the recognition and respect of their rights, of dignified working conditions, adequate salary and lawful contracts and claiming for the implementation of further (and efficient) public centres of placement, the only means through which finally eradicating caporalato and black work.
Moreover, the one of caporalato must be regarded as a structural, extensive and transversal issue, moving all around Italy according to the seasonality of the products. A national problem then, not something limited or circumscribed to the South. Many Italian products of excellence are the result of this system of exploitation, that guarantees low costs of production and greater profit to companies and agricultural entrepreneurs, often limited by the policies of the capitalistic great distribution. As a matter of fact, intervening on caporalato means individuating its rooted causes and fighting them first. Indeed, caporalato, black and grey work, under-payment are just accessory phenomena and effects of exploitation, on which the Italian agricultural industry is based; this depending on the neoliberal model of development of labour market, founded on the leading role of the great distribution, that fixes prices and compels the companies to make savings at the expenses of the workforce, so as to be competitive in the international capital market and counterweight the loss of contractual power caused by the distribution’s policies.
The strike of the tomato’s pickers of that summer of 2011 brought to the enactment of the law that amends the Article 603 bis of the Penal Code of 2001, thanks to which caporalato, once punished with an administrative sanction, is now criminally liable. The law also introduced and recognized the shared responsibility of entrepreneurs and caporali over crimes of slavery and exploitation of agricultural workers. The SABR process that followed the protest, furthermore contributed to the arrest and condemnation of 12 people among caporali and entrepreneurs. Our host tell us he is happy with
the results their fight has achieved (caporalato is no longer considered only as an administrative crime) but insists on the incompleteness of the law and on the need of focusing on the implementation of prevention measures. “There is a need to introduce a mechanism of ethic certification, an additional system of traceability of products to be juxtaposed to the already existing biological certification. We need to rebel to a capitalistic and consumerist cultural system that diffuses the idea that products come before individuals. We need to overturn it and understand that the person, its integrity, its dignity and its rights are most important things.”
Yvan Sagnet is now a trade-unionist for Flai-CGIL and has been awarded by the President Mattarella of the title of “Cavaliere della Repubblica”. In 2017, he founded the association NoCap that, thanks to the BollinoNoCap, promotes ethical production and checks over products in order to evaluate their quality on the basis of parameters such as the ethical one, km 0 policy, 0 waste policy, respect of animals and renewable energy. There is a need to rediscover ethical and critical purchase in order to avoid feeding a system of injustice and exploitation that is rooted but can be boycotted by a more conscious and less materialistic consumer’s approach.