RIGNANO GARGANICO, Italy (Reuters) - After crossing half of Africa and surviving a perilous boat trip from Libya in search of a better life in Italy, Boubacar Bailo is now contemplating suicide.
One of an army of illegal immigrants hired to harvest tomatoes in the Puglia region, Bailo squats in a fetid cardboard shack restlessly waiting for a call to the fields.
Every year thousands of immigrants, many from Africa, flock to the fields and orchards of southern Italy to scrape a living as seasonal workers picking grapes, olives, tomatoes and oranges.
Broadly tolerated by authorities because of their role in the economy, they endure long hours of backbreaking work for as little as 15-20 euros ($22-$29) a day and live in squalid makeshift camps without running water or electricity.
“I never thought it would be like this in Italy. Even dogs are better off than us,” said Bailo, a 24-year-old from Guinea struggling to survive in an area of Puglia known as the “Red Gold Triangle” which produces 35 percent of Italy’s tomatoes.
“It’s better to die than to live like this, because at least when you die your problems are over.”
Things have been particularly bad this year in Puglia, whose tomatoes end up in dishes around the world, from the upscale restaurants of London to the homes of the village of San Marco just a few miles away.
The economic crisis forced factories in Italy’s rich north to shut down or lay off employees, so more migrants than usual — around 2,000 people — have come here in search of work.
Rains — a tomato picker’s best friend because the machinery an increasing number of farm owners use to replace manual labor does not work properly on muddy grounds — have been sparse.
And a crackdown by Italy’s conservative government on illegal immigration has made farmers more reluctant to hire “clandestini” workers, particularly those easily identifiable as foreigners because of their skin color.
This month, the government launched an amnesty for immigrants illegally employed in cleaning or caring for the elderly by Italian families, but that does not apply to those bringing tomatoes in from the fields.
Bailo, who was denied an asylum request and has no papers, says he has worked eight days in the past two months “and I didn’t even put 100 euros in my pocket.”
The going rate for illegal tomato pickers is 3.5 euros per “cassone” — a big plastic crate that, when full, weighs 350 kg (770 lb).
On a good day, workers can hope to make as much as 35-40 euros from laboring from dawn to dusk.
But in most cases they will have to pay a cut to the so-called “caporali,” middlemen who select the workforce for the farm owners and make sure the job gets done.
“It’s a feudal system like in the Middle Ages. These modern slaves are handy for the economy: you can exploit them and then get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore,” said Father Arcangelo Maira, a local priest trying to help the immigrants.
The shanty town where Bailo lives in the countryside along with 600 fellow immigrants is known as “the Ghetto.” From afar, it resembles a refugee camp in any war-ravaged African country, but the reality is possibly worse.
People sleep on bug-infested mattresses in overcrowded shacks made of cardboard and plastic sheets or in decrepit houses. Idle youths in dirty clothes brush off the mud from broken shoes, or play draughts using rocks on makeshift boards.
A group of men slaughters a goat in a corner.
After turning a blind eye for years, regional authorities in August set up 60 portable toilets and 20 water tanks to serve an estimated 1,500 immigrants until October, when most will move further south to the Calabria region for the orange harvest. Cheap accommodation for up to 300 people is also being readied.
But medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which since 2003 has been monitoring the area and helping immigrants get access to basic health services, says more should be done.
“The conditions in which they live and eat are extremely precarious. These are young, strong people who arrive in Italy in good health and fall sick here,” said MSF doctor Alvise Benelli.
Spending hours kneeling or bending in the fields means that many suffer from back and muscle pain. The lack of hygiene causes skin and intestinal diseases. There is also an increasing number of people suffering from depression.
“They left their country and came here hoping to find an El Dorado, but they end up living in conditions that are often worse than what they had at home,” said Benelli.
“You see it most when they are forced to stay indoors, they sleep for much of the day and don’t answer when we speak to them. Sometimes I have seen them cry.”
Editing by Robin Pomeroy