The exploitation of Europe’s hidden migrants

With few legal avenues to settle and work in the EU, migrants are forced to work in the trading bloc’s agricultural sector generating billions of euros for its economies. Ahmed Uddin looks at the hidden infrastructure of exploitation.

Over 500 years ago living standards and incomes between Europe and the rest of the world were broadly comparable. Contrary to popular belief some parts in the Global South were considerably better off than their counterparts in Europe. Mansa Musa, the 14th Century West African ruler, who ruled over the kingdom of Mali, he had a net worth estimated to be equivalent to around $400bn in today’s terms. His kingdom stretched for about 2,000 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to modern-day Niger, taking in parts of what are now Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

The fortunes of these lands changed drastically when Europeans colonised these lands to exploit their resources including their people. Europe also roped the rest of the world into a single international economic system. Historically there is a direct correlation with the downfall of these economies in Africa with the presence of European colonisers. Today, Europe continues to exploit Africa creating a lopsided world of inequality. This concentration of wealth in one place is not a natural occurrence, it has been created.

Our planet has finite resources and has limits to its ecological capacity – there can only be so much economic growth without being destructive. The earth has a safety threshold as to what quantum of resources can be safely extracted and the amount of greenhouse gases it can absorb. Current estimates indicate that global consumption is overshooting our planet’s ecological capacity by 60 per cent each year. This over-consumption is primarily related to the activity in the Global North. Our planet has enough ecological capacity for each of us to consume 1.8 ‘global hectares’ annually (this is a measure that takes into account the use of resources, pollution and emissions). Any consumption beyond the 1.8 global hectares is putting us on a pathway to dangerous degradation. To put it into perspective, Europeans consume 4.7 global hectares per person, while the average consumption in places like Ghana and Guatemala is at the safe limit of 1.8 global hectares. The figure dramatically rises in Canada and USA where the average person consumes 8 times their ‘fair’ share.

The consumption has a devastating impact on the environment and the people from these lands. The aggressive deforestation that is currently taking place in the Global South is paving the way for more farmlands to largely supply the Global North, for example, with more crops for biofuels and feed for cattle. Sixty years ago, the planet was carpeted with 1.6 billion hectares of mature tropical forests. More than half of it has been destroyed by humans. The over-farming of land in turn has consequences for the soil. Scientists have calculated that forty per cent of our planet’s agricultural soil is degraded. Again, this degradation is a result of intensive industrial farming techniques and the use of chemical fertilisers. In the not too distant future, the soil will lose the capacity for any agricultural activity as it is robbed of its fertility. Even now this is happening with people in some places unable to cultivate the land to grow their own crops.

In a world where 4.3 billion people live in poverty and 800 million people go to bed hungry every night, we use agriculture not to feed people but for non-food needs in the Global North. This is creating a crisis of food insecurity in the Global South. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has found that each one per cent increase in food insecurity pushes 1.9 per cent more people towards migration. This in turn causes a vicious cycle, foremost of which is migration which can cause further food insecurity. As people move from one nation to another, they becoming increasingly more vulnerable, they are further exploited and become more desperate. People are being forcibly displaced largely due to the lack of access to food. Amartya Sen correctly said that hunger and starvation result from some people not having access to enough food – not because there is not enough food available in the country or region.

Yet in Europe, in the farmlands where migrants are forced to work in illegal conditions, farmers are dumping food because it does not meet the aesthetic ideal for consumers. In Europe alone it is estimated that about one third of the food produced is not consumed and waste occurs at all stages of the chain, starting at the production level. At the lower end, it is believed that in the EU, 90 million tonnes of food (or 180 kg per person) is wasted, much of which is suitable for human consumption.

If the circumstances that push migrants to leave their homelands continue, we will increasingly see larger numbers of migrants coming to the shores of Europe for a secure life. This is only a natural response. Since the NATO overthrow of Gaddafi, Libya has become the main transit point with an unprecedented flow of migrants both in and out of the country. Desperate migrants trying to get to the Italian island of Lampedusa or the Sicilian coast has become a common sight on our TV screens. This current ‘flood’ of migrants will seem like a trickle by comparison if inequality in the world is maintained as it is. Migration is simply a rational response to the large differences in standards of living between the Global South and North. People will continue to be forced to take extreme measures when left with nothing at all. A country with rising levels of food insecurity and conflict will experience greater outward migration. In a recent study food insecurity was found to be a significant cause for the incidence – and intensity of armed conflict, with 0.4 percent more people fleeing a country for each additional year of conflict.

Desperate migrants make the dangerous journey of travelling through Africa to Libya, often experiencing and having to deal with human trafficking, slavery, kidnapping, imprisonment, begging family back home for ransom, bribing and paying off authorities such as police and soldiers. Their ordeals often include beatings, rape and sometimes even death. Most set off on this journey knowing very well what awaits them but are still willing to do so out of sheer desperation.

Vulnerability and Abuse of Migrant Workers:

In Europe there lies a two-tier system, one for European citizens and another for migrants. The rule of law, ideals of democracy and human rights are disregarded, and slavery is normalised. Contemporary labour market sectors in EU countries are exploiting new forms of vulnerability for new arrivals in Europe. Migrants are easily exploited in the agricultural sector.

Our greed for higher consumption in Europe aims at reducing the cost of production, so that not only can farmers enjoy increased profit margins but also so that we can purchase goods at a relatively cheap price. Migrants are the obvious pool of cheap labour, forced to exist on the margins of society where their rights are non-existent. Once on European shores, due to their vulnerability, migrants are forced into modern slavery, exploited to work in farms for low wages. The abuse of migrants in Sicily is shocking and includes being tortured, raped, beaten and sometimes killed.

A painting of the late Soumaila Sacko appears on a bollard on Via Maqueda in Palermo. Soumaila originally from Mali, the land where once Mansa Musa ruled. Soumaila and his companions had been in Italy since 2010, working in the agriculture industry. The artist Igor Scalisi Palminteri designed it to highlight the plight of labourers like the 29-year-old Soumaila, who was killed on 2 June 2018. The murder took place in San Calogero, southern Italy, while he was collecting scrap metal from an abandoned factory to build a shack in the tent-city of San Ferdinando. Two other migrants who were with him were also attacked but survived. 

As a trade unionist, Soumaila had been active in fighting for the rights of migrant farm workers in Italy. He had spoken out against the inhuman conditions and poor pay that labourers had to endure, and how mistreatment by farm owners was widespread. In the make-shift camp city which looks like a refugee camp thousands of workers have no permanent shelter, no electricity, no sanitation and no running water.

Madiheri Drame, who was also wounded in the attack, recalls that at around 20.30 a man drove close to the factory and from a distance of approximately 150 metres shot at them four times. One of the bullets struck Soumaila Sacko in the head.

At the time the newly elected Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte mentioned Soumaila in his first parliament speech, referring to him as “one of thousands of day labourers with correct immigration papers who every day in this country go to work in conditions below any level of dignity”.

His right wing deputies who are no longer in power, the Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Labour Minister Luigi Di Maio, didn’t find it in their hearts to commiserate. The shooting incident took place just hours after Salvini, a member of the right-wing anti-immigration League party, declared: “The party is over for illegals.” In an ailing economy, right wing parties have come into power on the back of a promise to increase productivity, improve the economy and bring back work to Italians. The attitude of those in the Global North has shifted increasingly to the far right with a consequent rise in verbal and physical abuse directed at people that are classed as ‘non-Europeans’. With studies predicting that the movement of people to Europe will continue to increase manifold and one can only imagine what that will do to the mood of ‘Europeans’.

Living Conditions

Economists have been churning out the GDP growth myth for decades. GDP growth is linked to increasing production and consumption on a yearly basis. The measurement of GDP came about in the 1930s to measure money-based activity after the First World War. It is solely focussed on tallying up money-based activity irrespective of whether the activity is useful or destructive to humans and the environment. Yes, the exploitative use of migrant labour in farms will increase GDP, but the conditions they work in or the risks they are forced to take is not taken into account. If you extend the working day by forcing labourers to work for cheap for more hours, it will increase GDP. But GDP will not say anything of the toll that too much work takes on people’s bodies, souls and relationships.

The economist Simon Kuznets formulated the modern concept of GDP. He warned that we should not use GDP as a normal measure of economic success, for it would incentivise too much destruction. Contrary to his advice, GDP as a measure of success has been pushed around the world. We are now witnessing an era where GDP growth is beginning to create more poverty, reversing the process of human progress. It is creating a world of imbalance, where the Global North continues to push higher GDP objectives at the expense of others. The multi-billion euro agriculture industry is run by the migrant labour work force and they are vital to the local economy. It is estimated that this trade makes up around 20 percent of the country’s GDP. The data speaks for itself, highlighting how migrants are vital to the economy and yet they are not afforded the most basic of rights, not even suitable housing.

Migrant labourers are forced to live in shamefully inhuman conditions. Shelters are often built out of scrap metal, wood and plastic. Toilets are often non-existent and many workers resort to relieving themselves in the fields. By Italian law, all workers are to be provided with shelter and food but this law is rarely adhered to as it saves farm owners money, reducing the cost of production. Labourers are restricted from renting rooms in the towns and city centres as a direct result of deep-seated racism. Locals refuse to rent properties to the migrants, preferring to lose money by keeping properties empty rather than seeing migrants in their neighbourhoods.

The migrants are not even allowed to congregate in makeshift camps as they must be out of public sight. Instead, they are dispersed among derelict farmhouses, sheds, former petrol stations and abandoned factories, often in polluted and unsafe conditions on the periphery of towns and cities.

Farmers also further exploit the workers by recruiting migrants to work on farms through a middleman. The middleman is responsible for recruiting staff from the refugee camps. They often pick them up early in the morning for a long back-breaking day of work. These middlemen are referred to as gangmasters and they are also often from the migrant community. In exchange for his services the middleman receives a commission. The middleman also acts as a buffer between the law and the farmers. Should inspectors happen to discover this illegal practice, the finger of blame is pointed at the middleman. 

Despite working around nine hours daily including Sundays, workers are only provided with fixed term contracts of up to three months. Contracts stipulate incorrectly that workers will work only 30 hours per week. Italian law stipulates that residency permits can only be issued to workers possessing contracts. Once the contract ends, the workers are vulnerable and can easily be expelled if they refuse to work under inhumane conditions. These shoddy contracts are used as control mechanisms, so that workers do not complain. If they refuse an extension to a contract, migrants can lose their residency permit. Most workers remain silent and continue to be exploited.

Italy, along with Spain, has the highest number of migrant workers in the EU that work in the agricultural sector. It has a significant presence of migrant women who are highly vulnerable. Women face additional exploitation where their employers abuse them through sexual blackmail. The problem of migrant workers not having appropriate housing and being forced into ghettos has led to widespread cases of sexual exploitation of migrant women.

Sexual exploitation of female workers

The migration crisis is used by various criminal gangs and human trafficking networks to target and brutally exploit the most vulnerable. In the case of women, this situation is further compounded by particular gendered dynamics and power relations. Many migrant women do not have any alternative options but to submit to extra layers of exploitation and other forms of abuse. It is widely known that that there is sexual abuse of female labourers. According to migrant associations, authorities and unions it is estimated that more than half of all Romanian women (most of the workforce comprises Romanians) working in the greenhouses are forced into sexual relations with their employers, and almost all of them work in conditions of forced labour and severe exploitation. Out of sheer desperation and the burden of earning an income for their families that they have left behind in Romania, female workers are not in any position to refuse their employers’ advances as they risk losing their jobs. Should they fall pregnant, many resort to abandoning their children at hospitals, as not only can they not afford to keep the child but their long working hours puts them in no position to take care of their new born babies. Many women are also forced into prostitution, organised by criminal gangs, to serve the men in the informal camps where agricultural migrant workers live.

Blood Tomatoes

In the south east corner of Sicily, the tomatoes from Pachino are the most famous. Bursting with sweetness and flavour due to the perfect weather conditions, the ideal soil and the right amount of sunlight. They are known to be crunchier and sweeter than most varieties of tomatoes – around 200,000 tonnes of Pachino tomatoes are produced annually, generating a multi-million-euro industry. Sicily is Europe’s third largest producer of vegetables. It is shamefully built on the labour of an underground exploited population, living in subhuman existence and subjected to abuse.

From a distance due to the reflection of the sun, fields that stretch out for miles look like the blue waters of the sea. Labourers are paid piecework rates, a practice that is illegal in Italy. Not wanting to waste time by taking toilet breaks, labourers don’t sip water. Often farmers deliberately do not even supply any drinking water or provide any real toilet facilities, as it slows down productivity. Piecework pay has become the norm across the country, leaving workers’ pay well below the suggested rate for agricultural labourers. During non-harvest periods, an African worker usually receives €2-3 per hour, compared to Italy’s agricultural minimum wage, agreed by the industry, of €7.13. Labourers don’t protest as most feel lucky to get paid at all and to have a residency permit.

A rough estimate indicates there are 500,000 migrant workers in Italy’s agricultural sector, around half of the sector’s total workforce. 80% of those without contracts are migrant workers, forced to work illegally. Labour unions say up to 300,000 illegal workers continue to generate billions of euros a year in profit for Italy’s agricultural sector. Although this practice of exploitation has been going on since the 1970s, the recent flow of migrants has allowed farmers to further reduce pay and be more abusive as there is a wider pool of workers to choose from.

The infamous Mafia of Sicily also exploit the vulnerable migrants. The Mafia have men stationed within asylum seekers’ reception centres and refugee camps. So when migrants leave the camps and even after they’ve been granted asylum, they are recruited to the farms. Migrant camps have become the recruiting grounds for Mafia businesses to prosper. Sometimes they even collude in running the camps as this has become more profitable and less risky in comparison to their previous criminal activities.

If Europe wants to tackle the issue of migration from Africa, it needs to tackle all the causes of it, including the causes that Europe creates in the Global South. Migration is intensified by conflicts, climate disasters and the rising prices of staple/basic foods. Europe wants to increase its GDP at the expense of exploiting foreign lands and their people. The practice of consumption of resources from other nations so that a lifestyle can be maintained in Europe and often supporting or starting conflicts in other parts of the world – all this needs to stop. The poisonous xenophobic rhetoric against Africans and migrants is so widespread that this hatred has spilled over to other EU citizens. As seen in case studies of Romanian women working in Sicily, EU citizenship does not prevent people from being victims of exploitation and trafficking. Some people are more European than others; Romanians aren’t the right type of European. Once migrants are in one’s backyard in Europe, the environment is perfectly set for exploitation and abuse.

The recent film ‘Us’, directed by Jordan Peele, highlights how we maintain our way of life at the expense of ‘Others’. In the film, Peele shows beneath a funhouse the perfect metaphor for how our embrace of capitalism allows a group of people to further accumulate more wealth and sustain the status quo with no regard for people outside this class. Just as African Americans were allowed to be enslaved as they were seen as soulless and therefore did not have the comfort of freedom and choice, similarly the migrant workers in Sicily are seen as the soulless underclass that can serve our needs and comforts. Migrants exist to serve people with their blood and sweat, with little reward. If they step out of line they are to be punished and even killed. They are not to be seen in public and not allowed to live amongst ‘Europeans’. Everyone is guilty of turning a blind eye to the human rights violations, as their exploitation enables the lives we wish to lead in our funhouses in Europe. 

Ahmed Uddin is a Senior Manager at IHRC, he also works as a consultant for various leading development and humanitarian INGOs.  He undertook field work in Sicily to research this issue and is working on a report with colleagues for publication next year.