Cultivating dignity amid seasonal harvest

ITALY • They work 12 hours a day under the sun and live by the thousands in makeshift camps in crumbling ghettos, just beyond the fields where the best “Made in Italy” produce is grown.

They are mostly foreign seasonal workers. But there are also Italian day labourers such as Paola Clemente, a 49-year-old from San Giorgio Jonico who died of a heart attack in 2015 while she was working in the fields for €2 (S$3.15) an hour.

The unwritten rules laid down by the recruiters are the same for everyone: no contract, a salary between €22 and €30 a day – less than half the legal minimum wage – and abuse, threats and blackmail.

The SfruttaZero (ZeroExploit) project aims instead to give dignity to the workers who flock to Puglia during the tomato harvesting season. Tomatoes are grown and harvested without abuses by the activists of Diritti a Sud (Rights in the South) and Solidaria, together with a group of migrants who are registered and paid.

“Farming fields without exploitation is possible, and that‘s what we are doing,” said Ms Rosa Vaglio, a spokesman for Diritti a Sud.

“We started in the summer of 2016, producing 2,500 jars of sauce,” she said. “Last year, we made almost 20,000 jars from land farmed in Nardo and Bari.

“Orders are coming from Germany, France and Austria, as well as Italy,” Ms Vaglio continued.

“The idea was born in the ghetto of Nardo. However, the initiative was not created solely to fight the exploitation of foreigners. We want dignity for everyone. Here in the south, there‘s not much work even for those who have studied. Among us there are graduates, people with master‘s and doctorate degrees, who can‘t find a job.”

So far, the association has only five workers on contract – three Italians, one Tunisian and a Sudanese. But when the harvest begins, around July 10, far more labour will be needed.