The Italian agricultural industry has been relying mostly on immigrant workers since the Nineties; their number has multiplied by ten in the last twenty years, reaching an estimated 172.000 in 2007.
Among them, especially in the South, many thousands are seasonal labourers, who move from town to town during the year harvesting tomatoes, olives, etcetera. They are the ones who face the harshest conditions.
In Rosarno there lived several thousands of African immigrants (the estimations I’ve read vary between 2000 and 5000; the “native” population of the town is around 1500); they were harvesting the Calabrian oranges on the quality of which we Italians pride ourselves so much, and lived and worked in conditions challenging any minimum standard of human rights.
Most of them slept by dozens and hundreds in abandoned houses, or in some of the many abandoned buildings that can be found all over Italy (for our prized local traditions include start to build yards, get the welfare subsidies, and then run with the money leaving the unfinished building to its fate), without hygienic facilities or running water, without any means to keep warm except burning piles of rubbish.
Needless to say, such conditions caused them many health problems, mostly pulmonary diseases (the treatment for which I assume has been made even more difficult by the recent law which lifts the prohibition for medical workers to denounce “illegal” immigrants, often causing the latter to abstain from asking for medical treatment for fear of being reported to the authorities)
The “fares” those African workers got for their work were outrageously low to say the least: around 2 euros per hour, sometimes less, from which they had to detract the price they were asked to be driven to the fields and back. Barely enough to survive; no-one of them was even able to send some money back home.
The “native” inhabitants, with a few exceptions, did not show any respect to the African workers, at best; at worst, they beat them with clubs or shot them with air rifles.
Indeed the provocation which triggered the revolt was only the most recent of a long series. On Jan. 7th, two African men were walking in one of the main streets of the town (not everybody gets “chosen” everyday to go to the fields), and from a passing car several shots from an air rifle exploded, wounding one of them.
For about three hundreds immigrants, that was the last straw; they couldn’t take it anymore and marched the streets of the town in protest – it was not what we use to call a “peaceful” protest, and rightfully so – windows got smashed, cars got burnt, yet no-one was personally attacked by the angry workers.
The police intervened and charged the demonstrators. There were some clashes and about ten African men were arrested, and some were hurt.
Late in the night, the immigrants came back to their dormitories, and the following morning (Jan. 8th) around 700 of them calmly demonstrated in front of the city hall.
But in the meantime the “natives” had opened what the press itself had to describe as “human hunting”, “nigger hunting” and suchlike: the “natives” built check-points and started patrolling the town in squads, some people tried to run Africans over with cars and even bulldozers, there were more shots with air rifles, two immigrants were shot in the legs with actual rifles, fire was set to a dormitory (no victims nor injures), the African workers living isolated in the countryside were attacked with clubs, their money stolen, and so on.
The following day (Jan. 9th) over 1000 immigrants were displaced; some left for the North, many were sent on special trains to the so-called CIE’s, Centers for Identification and Expulsion, structures where the immigrants are usually held against their will upon their arrival waiting for Gods knows what – the conditions there are quite horrible, some riots have already happened – and generally end up being released anyway, as the structures are chronically overcrowded (which, I suppose, is what will also happen to the newly arrived).
Supposedly, the authorities are now checking on their documents, to expel the sans-papiers (but very many of them are regulars or seekers of political asylum).
Subsequently, the abandoned buildings where the immigrants had been living have been razed to the ground with bulldozers by the authorities, along with all the things the workers have been forced to leave behind. Now the town is ethnically cleansed, no more Blacks, no more traces of their existence.
Moreover, the government has announced that similar procedures will be adopted in three other areas “at risk” (i.e. with high percentages of immigrant agricultural workers). The name they have come up with for this is “assisted relocation”, as, I assume, “deportation” did not sound as nice.
The public political “debate” on this episode has been, of course, a distressing sight.
I will try to enunciate the different levels there were to it.
The first is the one where the “government” (so-called centre-right) and the “opposition” (so-called centre-left) blame each other: the former are blaming the local authorities, which of course belong to the opposition, while the latter are blaming the current laws on immigration, which of course were passed by the current government.
This occupies a lot of space in the debate and, naturally, has very little interest per se.
On another level, their respective rhetorics differ a little: some members of the government try to ride the wave of xenophobia, blaming “too much tolerance towards irregular immigration”, while the opposition stresses the “legality” factor, blaming almost everything on the Mafia (which in its Calabrian version is called ‘ndrangheta).
On one side, this is another way of superficially blaming each other – the centre-left is being attacked on an ideal level for its “tolerant ideology”, while the centre-right is being indirectly attacked for its ties to the organized criminality.
On the other side, both positions converge in one aspect, that is, the absolute focus on the legal aspect of the question – when the social-economic aspect is mentioned, it is only in relation with the legal aspect.
Such an approach can of course only lead to a legal “answer” to the “problem”, which means that more repressive laws are to come. Maybe not as a direct result; but addressing the facts of Rosarno in those terms is a way of justifying them beforehand.
Regardless of how they’ll be presented to the population, the new laws will undoubtedly follow the same direction as the ones that were passed under various pretexts by both centre-left and centre-right governments in the last years: a serious harm to the freedom of thought and expression, the freedom of association, the right to strike.
It is only logical that the establishment would do this, sensing that the economic crisis will bring social turmoil which they will need to counter; it is less understandable that even honest Leftists, not to mention Italian workers, don’t seem to see the global picture and find themselves supporting, not some abstract principle of “legality”, but specific laws, which are/will be specifically passed for the State to have stronger tools to repress the unavoidable popular discontent (and so, ultimately, against themselves).
The convergence between the two coalitions is even clearer in their shared rhetoric (though more insistent among the so-called centre-left, for several reasons), which is the third level of the public debate and which I can summarize as “Let’s not treat those Blacks quite this badly, or who is going to do their dangerous, underpaid jobs?”.
This overtly shows the ruling class’s concern for the consequences of the economical crisis, but unfortunately for them, the attempt to dam them up using immigrant workers can, at best, postpone the turmoil for a while.
see also the position of the Italian section of the Anti-imperialist Camp (in Italian)