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‘Justice Will Set Us Free’: Migrants in Italy Fight Labor Exploitation

As Italy struggles to provide its migrants with the resources and support they need, refugees are increasingly vulnerable to being exploited. Now migrants are joining activist groups and using their personal experiences to help others fight for fair treatment.

Written by Daniela Sala Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Starting point of the demonstration in Caserta on June 17, 2017. Daniela Sala

CASERTA, Italy – “Kalifoo ground is like a supermarket: Masters pass by and choose the workers,” said Osman, a 33-year-old undocumented migrant in Italy.

Most of the African migrants at the Ex Canapificio social center in Caserta, in southwestern Italy, refer to the places they gather to find work as “kalifoo ground” – slave squares– and their employers as masters.

Kalifoo, meaning “slaves,” is the Libyan word for day-workers. When migrants from Ghana arrived in this part of Italy 20 years ago, local working conditions reminded them of Libya.

Originally from Burkina Faso, Osman traveled through the desert to Libya and finally took a boat to Italy in 2009. After his request for asylum was denied, he headed to Castel Volturno, a city 50km (30 miles) from Naples. He had been told an undocumented migrant had a better chance of finding a job there.

The city hosts one of the biggest African communities in Italy: Out of a population of 24,000 people, around 2,400 are Africans, mainly from Nigeria, Ghana and Western Africa. There are also an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 undocumented migrants living there.

But the city also has a more notorious reputation: It is known as one of the strongholds of the Camorra, the mafia-like criminal gang based in the Campania region.

While the number of migrants making their way to Italy has dropped significantly in recent months, the country remains one of the main gateways into Europe. So far this year, 99,750 people have arrived by sea.

The country is struggling to accommodate them. After a series of corruption scandals, several migrant centers have closed. There is increasing public pressure on the government to take a tough line, and some reforms have made it harder for some refugees to access public services.

As support dwindles, asylum seekers and migrants are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by their employers – and in Campania, many of those employers claim to be affiliated with the Camorra.

Now, migrants in Castel Volturno and Caserta – the biggest city in the region – are joining with activist groups to help other migrants stand up to employers’ intimidation tactics and fight for their right to fair treatment.

Once Osman got to Castel Volturno, he got a job picking mushrooms in a greenhouse. The average local daily allowance for 10 working hours is around 30-35 euros ($35-$40).

“I was paid 25 euros ($30) and I knew from the start that I was being exploited,” said Osman. “But I could not do anything. I needed money.” Looking for a place to sleep, he ended up 47km (27 miles) away in Caserta, at a homeless shelter run by the charity Caritas.

Then one day in 2010, Osman’s employer locked him and the other mushroom pickers in the greenhouse, to hide them from the police. It got so hot, Osman had to break a window so they could breathe. Soon after, he quit the job and, with help from Caritas, reported his employer for labor exploitation.

Osman didn’t win the case. But seven years on, he has left behind day labor and now works to safeguard the rights of exploited laborers, as an activist with both Caritas and the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Movement in Caserta (MMRC), one of the few long-term experiments between Italian activists and migrant workers in Southern Italy.

Osman and Mamadou at work with Mimma at the social center.(Daniela Sala)

Mamadou, another lead activist at MMRC, was a student activist in Ivory Coast before he fled the civil war in 2004. When he arrived in Italy, he got a low-paying job working in a tobacco field. His salary was often late, when he was paid at all. He wanted to report his employer, but because he was undocumented, he didn’t want to risk going to the police. In 2011, with support from MMRC, Mamadou finally filed the complaint.

He never got any compensation. Still, he is in no doubt that he made the right move. “I would do it again,” said Mamadou, who now works as a cultural mediator for the MMRC’s SPRAR project, part of a government-funded initiative to help asylum seekers settle in Italy. “Filing the report was the first step that made me aware of my rights as a worker.”

Mamadou at work at the social center in Caserta. (Daniela Sala)

To spread that awareness, in June, MMRC organized a peaceful demonstration of 6,000 African migrants. They gathered in front of the Questura, the police headquarters which is also responsible for issuing and renewing residence permits, to protest the increasing number of denied asylum requests and the frequent delays in issuing documents to migrants.

One of the founders of MMRC, Mimma D’Amico, said a few years ago the group stopped trying to act as a protector of migrants’ rights and instead started helping migrants get directly involved in the fight themselves.

The aim, said D’Amico, is to promote activism and self-awareness so that migrants can better address the issues that really matter to them. “We do not have a magic wand,” she said. “We have decided not to hide behind ideology or propaganda, but rather to build on participation and on people’s needs.”

A room inside a Pentecostal church in Castel Volturno run by Prosper Doe, who is also an activist at the social center. (Daniela Sala)

Making the task more difficult is the Camorra’s control over parts of the region. Migrants often talk about employers claiming affiliation with the gang to scare workers into keeping quiet about dire working conditions, and it is difficult to tell what rank the employer has within the gang, if any at all. “In this area, the Camorra is quite strong,” said Osman. “Migrants understand that these people have power.”

The gang has a history of violence against migrants in Castel Volturno. In September 2008, six African migrants and one Italian were killed as part of an escalating territorial conflict between the Camorra and African drug gangs. The resulting investigation showed that none of the victims were involved in criminal activities.

Due to the environment of fear, a worker usually only reports their employer when they reach a “boiling point,” Osman said. That tends to be one of two scenarios: “He has been repeatedly beaten [or] he has gotten severely injured.”

Bureaucracy is another obstacle. An undocumented migrant who reports his employer for labor exploitation can legally be granted a six-month humanitarian permit to stay. But these cases can take up to three or four years and there is no guarantee that in the end the migrant will get anything. Between 2012 and 2015, according to figures collected by the Legal Clinic of Roma Tre University, only 25 permits under this specific condition were issued in the whole country.

Nevertheless, Osman is optimistic that with help from migrant activists like himself, more people will starting demanding their right to work without exploitation. “Justice will set us free,” he said. “I will not tell my brothers what to do. I can explain the alternatives, but they have to be ready to change their life. And I have to respect that.”

The “I Am Not a Slave” project was supported by the Sabrina Sganga Association.

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