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Exploitation of migrants feeds agriculture in southern Italy

Staff Writer |
Exploitation and mistreatment of foreign workers is feeding the agriculture of the Calabria region, one of southern Italy's largest farming areas, a non-profit organization said.

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In a report, Italian aid group Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU) described the living conditions of thousands of migrants, who are seasonally employed in local agriculture, as appalling.

The report was unveiled at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in the Italian capital, and focused particularly on migrants living and working in the vast Gioia Tauro plain.

"Exploitation, illicit practices, and housing conditions marked by neglect and marginalization continue to represent the predominant traits of this context," doctors with MEDU wrote.

For the last five years, the non-governmental organization (NGO) has been providing health and social care to foreign laborers employed during the harvest season on the Gioia Tauro plain, estimated to be at least 3,500 people.

Between December and April, MEDU assisted 484 people there, most of whom were young male migrants from Sub-Saharan countries, with an average age of 29, and who had regular residence permits.

"Spread among various makeshift settlements across the Plain, these people have provided as usual a flexible and cheap workforce to local citrus and kiwi producers," the report stated.

Some 92.65 percent of foreign workers assisted by MEDU were regular migrants, with an increase of 13 percentage points compared to the previous season. The large majority had a humanitarian residence permit (45 percent) or had been granted asylum (41.4 percent).

Yet despite their being legal residents in the country, only 27.82 percent of them had a regular contract, with a slight rise compared to 21 percent in the 2016-2017 season.

"In most cases, however, their letter of employment or contract is not accompanied by the issue of any pay check, or correct declaration of working days, or respect of working conditions as established by legislation," the report pointed out.

The number of foreign workers in agriculture has risen steadily in southern Italy in the last decade, and especially in Calabria's Gioia Tauro plain, with its population of about 160,000 and an economy driven by citrus, kiwi, and olive production.

Migrants would mostly live in abandoned farms or factories, and in makeshifts camps outside urban centers. Difficult access to health care, lack of hygienic facilities, running water and electricity, and frequent episodes of violence have made their living conditions extremely hazardous.

Tension between migrants and local residents resulted in violent clashes in Rosarno in January 2010, following a random shooting of at least three foreign laborers. The episode enflamed the mood among migrants, and about 100 of them stormed the center of Rosarno asking for better life conditions.

Since then, the situation has not improved much, according to the NGO. "Institutional efforts remain fragmentary, partial, and ineffective," it wrote in the report.

"Precarious living and working conditions significantly impact on the seasonal workers' physical and mental health."

The aid group closed its report with 17 specific recommendations, including delivering a multi-year social housing plan for seasonal foreign workers.

They also said women living in the makeshift camps needed to be assisted since they were particularly at risk of human trafficking. Other recommendations included providing public transport to migrants employed in the fields, and strengthening controls on firms to reduce labor exploitation.

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