PUGLIA, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Baah, a tall, broad-shouldered Ghanaian man, stares through a grimy window, his face a study of disappointment as he watches a chill wind cast ripples over fields of corn in southern Italy.
The countryside of Puglia, the region that spans the south-eastern tip of the Italian peninsula, is best known for its vast groves of olive trees, vineyards bounded by postcard-perfect dry-stone walls, and emerald and turquoise beaches.
Further inland, however, on the remote plains at the feet of the Gargano hills lies an ugly, secret and often violent world, one that 24-year-old Baah and hundreds of thousands of stateless migrants like him never imagined could exist in modern Europe.
Investigations by Italian labor unions who are demanding change have revealed that a vast army of vulnerable, often stateless North African and Eastern European migrants used to pick tomato crops are controlled by illegal work-gang masters and held in slave-like conditions in rural ghettos.
The calls for action come as rising numbers of migrants travel to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East, raising concerns of increased exploitation of migrant workers.
“They say there is work in Italy. I came to work, to make a better life. But in Italy people suffer, they work and they work and they do not get paid,” said Baah, one of several hundred men living in a ghetto known as Ghana Ghetto in the Cerignola area.
“There is no water, there is no place to live that is clean, no toilets. Italy is not paradise.”
Between the capital, Bari, the city of Foggia and the foothills, large, grim ghettos blot the landscape, inhabited by young men from Ghana, Nigeria and sub Saharan countries as well as increasing numbers from Iraq and Syria.
Many are waiting for the Italian bureaucracy to process their asylum applications, leaving them with no legal right to work and with little choice but to rely on local charity or find work illegally, making them vulnerable to exploitation.
The biggest of the ghettos, ‘Il Ghetto Rignano Garganico’,a sprawling, shanty town of cardboard and wooden huts, is reached by a 50 km (30 miles) drive along pot-holed, country tracks.
During the summer, in tomato picking season when temperatures hover in the mid 40s degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit), thousands of men converge to sleep and live here, without running water or toilets, overseen by work gang bosses, known as ‘caporali’ (the corporals).
Agriculture is widely accepted to be one of the Italian economic sectors most scarred by organized crime that blights the supply chain all the way from the fields to the supermarket - and the massive tomato industry is no exception.
A research project by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs released last December described a mobile, seasonal workforce living in extreme poverty, often without water and sanitation, housed in abandoned buildings or tent cities with little or no healthcare.
“Foreign labor is regarded as crucial to enable Italian agriculture to compete on global markets. Yet in a race to make the biggest possible profit, employment laws are being routinely ignored,” said ETI spokesman Nick Kightley releasing the report.
Repeated calls to Italy’s Agriculture Ministry for comment were not returned.
Italy is currently the world’s third largest producer of processed tomato products – second only to the United States and China - exporting 5 million tonnes worth more than $1.7 billion in 2014, mainly to Germany, Britain, France, Japan and Russia.
But while it is seen as the crown jewel of Italian agriculture, migrant workers have dubbed the Italian tomato business as “red gold”.
Yvan Sagnet, a young Cameroonian who led a revolt of migrant workers in 2011, said the ‘caporali’ can make thousands of euros a day while the workers earn 20 euros before costs are removed.
“They refuse to allow workers to bring food or water. They force them to pay 5 euros each for transport to the fields and to return to the ghettos to sleep at night. They sell food, panini for 3.50 euros and bottles of water for 1.50 euros,” he said.
“Often they take workers’ papers if they have any documents at all, using this as leverage to keep them from fleeing and making them a kind of slave. They charge them rent in the ghettos, they even make them pay for old tyres to burn for heat and warmth in winter.”
Sagnet came to Italy as a student, winning a scholarship to study engineering in Turin. He learned first hand the horrors of the work abuse when he missed an exam, lost part of his scholarship and had to find a way to bolster his finances.
Desperate to earn money and return to his studies, he traveled to the south in 2011 to work in the tomato fields of Nardo near the city of Lecce.
The working conditions he found were unimaginable – and, he says, remain unchanged - with the working day stretching from 3am to 6pm in 40 plus degree temperatures without shade or respite. Five hundred men were forced to sleep in less than 200 one-man tents and medical attention was discouraged.
When the owners of the fields Sagnet was working in decided suddenly to change the way the crop was to be picked – making the work more difficult but offering no extra pay - the young Cameroonian led a revolt and the labor force went on strike.
The men’s protest shone a public spotlight onto the nefarious ‘caporalato’ system, or the illegal employment of agricultural workers for little pay, harnessing attention from the Italian media, and 16 gang masters in Puglia were arrested.
Since then the Italian Parliament has legislated to make the ‘caporalato’ a Mafia crime but the system continues to flourish. Without regular police checks and raids, it is business as usual for the work gangs involved with the valued export, say campaigners.
Sagnet, who has since finished his degree and written two books, now works as an advocate with the Italian General Confederation of Labour union, CGIL, but lives with the constant threat of retribution.
Visits to other ghettos dotted throughout Puglia found migrants from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Romania and Bulgaria struggling to eke out an existence from tomato picking.
In summer time when the migrant labor force is at its fullest, say NGOs including Amnesty International and CGIL, women also move to the ghettos to cook and work as prostitutes.
Antoine, 24, an emigrant from the Ivory Coast who seeks seasonal picking work throughout Italy, proudly declares that he is “the only African that likes the cold” - and one of the few who refuses to work with the ‘caporali’.
“I don’t want to die on the job. People die here because they risk and push and work and try to fill their containers to make enough money to feed themselves, their families,” he said.
“I came to Italy to live and to work, not to die.”
In another ghetto populated by Romanian and Bulgarian workers, the air of misery is also tinged with a palpable fury. with outsiders chased away from the ghetto by ‘caporali’.
Angelo Guarini, founder of the Italian pro-agricultural campaign organization, Federazione Italiana dei Movimenti Agricoli, said the use of migrant labor in southern Italy’s fields was almost impossible to defend but did need to be seen in the context of an ailing agricultural sector.
Many farmers and growers are themselves battling for subsistence as global competition, tariff changes and world prices for crops such as tomatoes and olives have dropped.
“In my view there should be a Mediterranean-wide movement or publicity campaign to re-value fresh produce, not to compete but to unify and revitalize the sector and this would also help to provide more work and improve working conditions,” Guarini said.
For Sagnet, the battle to reform the Italian production system is still in its infancy.
He said a raft of cultural and structural change is urgently needed, from more efficient processing of migrants’ work documents to restructuring price setting for tomatoes through to creating state monitored systems to transport and house workers.
Other ways to improve the situation could include ethical certification, “pre-booking lists” where farms can hire migrants without using the ‘caporali’, housing projects to replace ghettos, and projects to offer legal advice and medical help.
“All this must be done in Italy. But if nations like Britain and Australia that import Italian tomatoes begin to demand proof that they have been picked and produced by people treated with dignity and paid properly, this too is hugely important – and will save human lives,” said Sagnet.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org