Enacting Rights from Below.

Migrant Farmworkers’ struggles in Nardò, Southern Italy Federico Oliveri
Abstract This chapter is devoted to the struggles undertaken in 2010 and 2011 by migrant farmworkers in the countryside of Nardò, Apulia, Southern Italy. First, I will show the key features of the mobilisation and clarify my theoretical background. Then, I will analyse the situation of migrant farmworkers and their struggle against illicit work and over-exploitation. Finally, I will reconstruct the genealogy of the mobilisation, trying to understand its general political meaning and assess its results and perspectives. Key Words: acts of citizenship, migrant workers, labour rights, social rights, social movement, immigration laws, labour laws, Italy. ***** 1. Migrant struggles in Nardò as acts of citizenship Since July 2010, for two consecutive summers, the countryside surrounding the town of Nardò became the scene of an unprecedented protest. Hundreds of migrants, all men between 20 and 40 years, mostly from Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and other African countries, started to contest illegal gangmasters (caporali) that control the harvest of watermelons and tomatoes. In 2010 a campaign against illicit work affecting migrants was launched by two NGOs, Finis Terrae and Brigate di Solidarietà Attiva. They were in charge of the Masseria Boncuri, an old farmhouse owned by the municipality equipped with tents and other basic services, in order to offer decent accommodation for seasonal workers. In 2011, migrants decided to support their claims for labour and social rights against the gang-mastering system (caporalato) with a two-weeks self-organised strike. Both the campaign and the strike raised new awareness on working and living conditions in rural Southern Italy. As a first result, local and national authorities have been recalled to their responsibility to protect the rights of migrants and of all farmworkers, passing stronger regulations against gangmasters and illicit work. As a matter of fact, the struggle of Nardò has its roots in the food production model imposed by neoliberal globalisation, which encourages extreme forms of exploitation and accordingly provides low-cost and disposable workers through a highly selective governance of migrations.

The explosion of the protest can be explained in the frame of the new cycle of migrant struggles started in Italy in 2010 – a cycle quite different from the previous ones. The first difference is the changed context, characterized by the economic crisis and its effects, in terms of growing unemployment and of a new governmental war against irregular migration. The second difference is the political nature of those struggles, characterised by the production of specific acts which I define, following Engin F. Isin, ‘acts of citizenship.’1 These acts produce new actors as claimants of rights and responsibilities, under unprecedented conditions and within a short period of time. Through such acts, the actors become answerable to justice against injustice, often breaking and innovating the given legal framework. Acting as citizens, migrants become part of a broader global movement that opposes the neoliberal model of citizenship. Against such a racialised, exclusionary, competitive and post-democratic idea of being political, they try to produce a new global citizenship from below. In particular, the struggle undertaken in Nardò for the enforcement of legal labour and social rights is the expression of what I define, with Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a ‘subaltern cosmopolitan legality’2 alternative to the elite-oriented one. 2. Migrants struggles against Illegal Gangmasters and Over-exploitation Migrants have been employed as farmworkers in Southern Italy for more than twenty years, gradually substituting the local workforce. In the beginning they were mostly from Maghreb, then from Western and Central Africa, lastly from Eastern Europe. They currently enjoy different legal statuses: seasonal workers, temporary residents, refugees, people under humanitarian protection, rejected asylum seekers, over-stayers, irregulars. Even long-stayers and migrants with documents continue to seek out precarious job in order to renew their permit to stay and send money to their family, ending caught up in a spiral of poverty, exclusion and exploitation. The living conditions of seasonal workers in Southern Italy are particularly harsh: according to a 2009/2010 report by the European Network Against Racism, 65% live in poor housing with no access to water, 62% have no access to toilets and 76% have chronic illness, mostly linked with working conditions.3 Many migrant farmworkers move from a region to another, following the different seasonal harvests, having few or no contact with public services and local populations. From July to August about 600 migrants usually work in Nardò as watermelon and tomato pickers. Before 2010, no more than 30 of them were legally hired: as a matter of fact, illicit work is still the main strategy local farmers use to make profits while keeping labour costs down. None of these farmers would admit to recur to African gangmasters (capi neri). Such illegal intermediaries directly recruit and manage daily farmworkers (braccianti). They provide the

correct number of people for each field; they control the harvest, deciding the speed of work and the length of the working day; they pay the wages deducing money for workers’ food and transport. Migrants are paid on a piece-rate system (cottimo): in Nardò, for instance, gangmasters pay 3,50 Euros per crate of 100 kilos tomatoes. Each worker recollects about 7 crates in a day. As a result, after working between ten and twelve hours, they are not going to earn more than 20 Euros per day. According to the current market prices, it is possible to estimate that farmers pay the gangmasters an average of 10 Euros per crate. There is therefore a massive gap between these working conditions and the legal provisions set by the local farmworkers contract, which imposes a 6 hour and half maximum working day and a 5,92 Euros minimum wage per hour. Without legal contracts, migrants cannot even access justice in order to redress this over-exploitation. Moreover, they work with no free access to clean water, no social insurance, no unemployment benefits, and no security provisions. In 2010 the campaign ‘Hire me (officially) against illicit work’ systematically informed migrant workers about their fundamental rights violated by the gangmastering system. With the help of police and the local labour inspection office, an unusual pressure was put on the caporali of Nardò – mainly from Tunisia and Sudan – and the enterprises using them: as a result, about 200 migrant farmworkers were legally hired. In 2011 the campaign had already started, when a group of 40 workers refused to continue harvesting tomatoes as usual, starting the first self-organised strike of migrant farmworkers in Italy. 4 In the early dawn of the 30th of July, they argued with the capo nero, refused to perform an additional task – separating the green tomatoes from the red ones – for the same price and returned to the Masseria Boncuri. During a first general assembly, they convinced the other workers to strike until their claims were satisfied: be paid 6 Euros instead of 3,50 for each crate of tomatoes; receive regular employment contracts; be recruited by the local job centre or directly by the farmers instead of by the caporali; receive labour inspections; enjoy better living conditions. As their first act, at 3 in the morning the strikers built street blockades with piled-up stones around the camp in order to prevent gangmasters’ trucks from coming and going. At least during the first days, almost all the 350 migrants hosted at Masseria took part in the mobilisation. After the first days, the caporali started to undermine the protest from within, both directly and indirectly: they threatened by death the leaders of the strike; they used some of ‘their men’ inside the tent city in order to divide the front by stressing the differences of nationality and status; they hired strike-breakers from other villages; they put a lot of pressure on their fellow citizens amongst the strikers to return to work and to move to the abandoned farms in the area, in order to circumvent the street blockades around the Masseria.

They even stipulated legal contracts with some workers and increased the wage per crate. Also for simple economic reasons, after two weeks the majority of migrants returned to work or left Nardò for other places. After ten days of strike, negotiation talks started at the Prefecture in the provincial capital of Lecce and at Regional Government in Bari. They included the strikers, the two NGOs of the Masseria Boncuri, the representatives of the municipality of Nardò, the province of Lecce and the Apulia Region, the local delegates of the CGIL trade union, one employers’ association. Migrants’ claims were only very partially recognised: employment lists for daily farmworkers would be established in the job centre of Nardò, encouraging employers to hire from that list; the municipality had to guarantee free transport to the fields for the hired workers. Nearly all migrants hosted at the Masseria put their name on the list, but only 20 were regularly employed. As a matter of fact, the institutional negotiations and the building of a group of migrant spoke-persons weakened the strike on the fields. In the meanwhile the tomato harvest was about to end: the tent city was closed on the 6th of September. Nevertheless, on the 14th of September the Italian Parliament adopted a new law transforming gang-mastering from an administrative violation to a crime, punished with a 8 to 12 years incarceration and with a 1,000 to 2,000 euros fine per each worker hired illegally. One of the main flaw of the new national legislation – the fact that enterprises recurring to gangmasters were not touched by sanctions – was partially redressed by the Regional Government of Apulia on the 15th of November. The 2006 regional law against illicit work was strengthen introducing so-called ‘indexes of congruity’ in order to verify the correspondence between the extension of the cultivated fields and the workforce hired by farmers. In case of incongruence, companies were excluded from public funds. 3. Migrant struggles in a Time of Economic Global Crisis The roots of the struggles in Nardò can be traced back in the neoliberal governance of migrations, experimented in Italy since the end of the 1990s in order to support with low cost workers the economic system in the global competition. The current mechanisms of controls, selection and stratification of the migrant population deserve the label of neoliberal because migrants’ rights are linked to the right to entry and stay in the country, and thus depend entirely on their ‘usefulness’ according to market rules and political opportunism. For instance, Italian law requires would-be immigrants to have jobs waiting for them in order to receive residence permits. It requires also migrants to leave the country if unemployed for six months, giving enormous power to employers. Irregular migration is thus produced by the legal system of controls, according to the needs of the economic and political system. Migrants are required to go through a period of illegality during which they are tested: only those who accept

to live with no or few rights in precarious conditions, such as in the underground economy, are admitted to the rank of regulars. This is also why the government decides for periodical mass regularisations. Even as regulars, migrants are kept on the razor’s edge of short-term permits. The demand for disposable workers is particularly high in agriculture. Italian farmers, especially in the South, suffer the race to the bottom of prices and labour standards imposed by emerging countries like China and by few large trade and food companies. As investments for technical innovation are very small, farmers make profits by lowering the wages of the pickers and by increasing their work schedule, in violation of the national and international labour laws. Not surprisingly, the mentioned 2009 report by the European Network Against Racism found that 90% of migrant workers do not have a regular contract and 16% have been victims of violence.5 The global crisis started in 2008 produced a further shrinking of wages and exasperated the repressive feature of the neoliberal governance of migrations. The norms passed by the Italian Parliament in 2009 classified the ‘irregular entry and stay in the country’ as a criminal offence, rather than as a simple administrative irregularity. Undocumented migrants were liable to pay a fine of 10,000 Euros and to be detained up to six months. People who willingly housed them risked up to three years in prison. The initial proposition to deny access to public services – such as medical care and education – to undocumented migrants was taken back after heavy protests. This tense context produced a new cycle of struggles, whose first episode was the tumult of Rosarno, in the Southern region of Calabria. On the January 7th 2010 hundreds of migrants working as orange-pickers revolted against the latest racist violences, but also against over-exploitation and Mafia oppression. Without that revolt, it would be difficult to explain the acceleration in the organisation of the first migrant general strike, which took place on the 1st of March 2010. And, subsequently, without that strike it would be difficult to explain the blockade of the roundabouts in Castelvolturno, Campania, enacted by migrant farmworkers in October 2010, the occupation of a construction crane in Brescia, Lombardy, in November 2010 and finally the strike in Nardò. The revolution against President Ben Ali’s regime played a role, too, in the mobilisation: many Tunisians hosted at the Masseria considered those events as an example that change is possible, if one is ready to fight back. Last but not least, as an effect of the crisis some migrants fired in Northern factories went in the Southern countryside in order to get a job and maintain their right to stay. Many of those migrants had already participated to strikes and to collective bargaining, now using their working-class knowledge in Nardò. 4. Migrant struggles as a Rupture of the Established Political Pattern

The 2010 campaign against illicit work and the 2011 strike for labour and social rights produced an unexpected rupture of the established political pattern. This is why migrant struggles in Nardò should be qualified as acts of citizenship. First, migrants produced themselves as claimants of rights and responsibilities trough acts of self-organisation and self-representation. The campaign granted visibility and voice to an otherwise silenced and subaltern category of workers – those engaged in rural areas, submitted to the gang-mastering system. The strike was decided and carried out autonomously by migrants, with the not invasive support of the two NGOs Finis Terrae and Brigate di Solidarietà Attiva. The strikers tried to break with the paternalistic approach of trade unions, generally considering migrants unable of acting autonomously: during the institutional negotiations CGIL’s trade-unionist were invited to support migrants’ claims, and their efforts to control the mobilisation were criticized. Second, migrants creatively used the Masseria Boncuri as a public space for socialisation and communication, which allowed them to stop isolation, racial segregation and ethnic competition. The 2011 strike would be impossible without the everyday self-organised assemblies. They allowed to articulate the claims against gangmasters and companies and to understand them as shared by all migrant workers, going beyond national cleavages. They created a new political discourse producing several important shifts: from a short-term to a long-term perspective, from an individual dimension to a collective one, from a particular to an universal struggle against work exploitation as a global system. Third, both the campaign and the strike produced a subjective transformation of the migrants involved and their relationship to other actors. Acting as citizens and as self-conscious workers, migrants showed to themselves that change is possible. Standing up for their rights and for workers’ rights in general, migrants stimulated the solidarity of other workers and social groups and the concern of gangmasters and farmers.



Engin F. Isin, ‘Theorizing Acts of Citizenship’, in Acts of Citizenship, ed. Engin F. Isin and Greg M. Nielsen (London and New York: Zed Books, 2008), 15. 2 Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law, Globalization, and Emancipation (London: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2002), 469. 3 Laura Di Pasquale, Racism and Discrimination in Italy. ENAR Shadow Report 2009/2010 (Bruxelles: European Network Against Racism, 2010), 15. 4 For a detailed reconstruction of the migrant strike of Nardò in Summer 2011, see Brigate di solidarietà attiva, et al., Sulla pelle viva. Nardò: la lotta autorganizzata dei braccianti immigrati (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2012). 5 Pasquale, Racism and Discrimination, 15.

Brigate di solidarietà attiva, Gianluca Nigro, Mimmo Perrotta, Devi Sacchetto, and Yvan Sagnet. Sulla pelle viva. Nardò: la lotta autorganizzata dei braccianti immigrati. Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2012. Di Pasquale, Laura. Racism and Discrimination in Italy. ENAR Shadow Report 2009/2010. Bruxelles: European Network Against Racism, 2010. Isin, Engin F. ‘Theorizing Acts of Citizenship.’ In Acts of Citizenship, edited by Engin F. Isin and Greg M. Nielsen, 15-43. London and New York: Zed Books, 2008. Sousa Santos, Boaventura. Toward a New Legal common Sense: Law, Globalization, and Emancipation. London: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2002. Federico Oliveri received his PhD in legal and political philosophy from Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, Italy, in partnership with Paris West University Nanterre La Défense. His main research interests are citizenship, social movements, human rights and migration studies. He worked for many years as a research advisor at the Council of Europe, within the Social Cohesion Development Division, and taught graduate courses on governance and active citizenship at University of Pisa. He is research associate at the Sciences for Peace Interdisciplinary Centre, University of Pisa, where he coordinates the editorial board of the journal ScienzaePace.

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