A Brutal Murder Has Highlighted the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Southern Italy

Gang networks in Sicily have become more entrenched during lockdown, exploiting migrant agricultural workers in a practice known as "caporalato".
August 11, 2020, 11:49am
Four bodies recovered by a humanitarian group last Tuesday from an overcrowded wooden boat
A crowd in Sicily mourning four people recovered from a wooden boat in the Mediterranean, en route to Italy from Libya. Photo: Adam Alexander/Alamy Live News

Late one night in early June, Adnan Siddique’s neighbours heard screams and cries for help coming from his apartment in Sicily’s hillside town of Caltanissetta. They called the police.

Responding officers found the 32-year-old textile worker – who moved to the Italian island in 2015 – in a pool of his own blood. He had been stabbed five times with a 30-cm-long knife: one in his back, once in his shoulder, twice in his legs, as well as the fatal blow to his side.

Italian investigators, who have arrested five suspects, believe Siddique was killed as punishment for defending migrant farm workers who were being exploited by criminal gang masters.

“He came here often,” said Piera di Giugno, owner of Cafè Lumière, a venue Siddique would frequent in Caltanissetta’s historical centre. “He was so kind. He met my husband, my children. We invited him to our house, to have lunch and dinner with us. We took him to the countryside. I have three sons, and he was the fourth.”

Siddique – one of nine children born to poor parents in Pakistan’s capital, Lahore – was said to have been translating police complaints for the exploited workers, who were seeing half of their measly income taken by the gang. It was because of this that he drew the attention of gang masters, and soon began receiving death threats.

“Once, I met him at the hospital, after these people that finally killed him beat him severely,” said Abbas Mohammed, a friend of Siddique’s who works in a local IT shop. “He was very scared to be at home alone. Some nights he invited me to have dinner with him because he was so afraid, so I gave him company and I told him not to worry. I tried to assure him that nothing was going to happen to him now.”

“The gangs were angry with him because they wanted him to stop his involvement in the complaints,” said Di Giugno. “And from there, because of the words he spoke, his ordeal began – until, after a year of threats, he was murdered.”

Filippo Maritato is the director of the House of Culture and Volunteering L. Colajanni. The centre provides training and support to migrants in Caltanissetta, which is home to one of Italy’s key migrant reception centres. Maritato claimed it has become common practice for gangs to take half of workers’ income. “They will take €50 from the owner of the farms to pay the workers, but only give €20 or €30 to the workers,” he said.

Gang masters exploiting migrant agricultural workers is a practice known as caporalato in Italy. An industry already worth €17 billion a year, experts say it’s on the rise in Sicily, and that gang networks have become more entrenched while operating during the coronavirus lockdown.

“The practice has continued throughout coronavirus in Sicily,” said Letizia Palumbo, a research fellow at the European University Institute and expert in Italian agriculture exploitation. “It hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s been increasing. The caporalato is being used for exploitation to reduce labour costs, and it’s become the de facto system for employing agricultural workers.”

Workers like those in the fields surrounding Caltanissetta are among the estimated 430,000 migrants working in Italy’s agricultural sector who are at risk of exploitation, according to the Federation of Agroindustrial Workers. The system in Italy relies on undocumented agricultural workers, who, according to official statistics, account for around a quarter of Italy’s entire agricultural workforce.

Within the southeastern area of Sicily alone – home to southern Italy’s biggest wholesale produce market – there are 5,500 farms that employ about 30,000 workers. According to Ahmed Echi, Sicily coordinator for Emergency, a non-profit running a mobile health clinic in the region, agricultural work in Sicily is no longer seasonal, but now takes place all year round, thanks to greenhouses. Many workers come from Morocco, Tunisia, Romania and Albania, and are being treated for joint and muscle pain, toothache and alcohol addiction.

“They are living in dirty old houses that the Sicilians built a century ago – abandoned houses, informal settlements or old warehouses, without drinking water and, in many cases, without bathroom facilities,” he said. “Many are asylum seekers recruited directly from the reception centres, and they work for up to 12 hours a day in the suffocating heat, for just €20 – and it kept going during coronavirus. It didn’t stop.”

Echi has called for the Italian government to introduce minimum prices for produce in order to reduce the possibility of further labour exploitation. “If you go to the largest supermarkets in Rome, one kilo of tomatoes costs €4 or €5, but if you come to areas in Sicily, it will be for €0.20 for a kilo,” he said. “It’s nothing. It’s just not enough money to pay the workers. The problem won’t be solved until the prices are fixed.”

Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2019 found that more than 1,500 agricultural workers in Italy died as a result of their work over the previous six years, due to exhaustion, fires and killings by gangs. “Across the whole of Italy, agriculture counts the fallen like those on a battlefield,” the authors wrote. In 2018, a fact finding mission by the UN found “extreme levels of labour exploitation and coercion, and inhuman working and living conditions” in southern Italy.

The Italian government claimed to be addressing the issue of migrant rights when, in May, it passed a new law. Part of a €55 billion stimulus package meant to support Italy’s pandemic-hit economy, it paved the way for around 200,000 undocumented workers to apply for six-month legal residency permits. “From now on, the invisible will be a bit less invisible,” said Teresa Bellanova, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, at the time.

But critics argue that the so-called “regularisation scheme” is merely a cynical attempt by Italy’s right-wing populist government to forward economic interests (there is an estimated shortfall of 250,000 workers due to the coronavirus pandemic), rather than a genuine effort to improve human rights and to tackle the widespread exploitation of migrant labour.

The Unione Sindacale di Base (USB), a trade union that represents agricultural workers, called a national strike on the 21st of May to protest the law. According to Michele Mililli, a USB representative in Sicily, it will not improve the rights of migrant agricultural workers, and could worsen exploitation.

“The reality is totally turned upside down, because it is the workers who will need to pay the employer to obtain an employment contract that is sometimes even false,” he said. “Contracts won’t stop exploitation, and we have heard of workers being told to pay up to €3,000 for them.”

There are no signs that the exploitation is coming to an end in Caltanissetta. A 20-year-old migrant worker from Guinea told VICE News that he was paid just €30 a day for picking apricots, peaches and tomatoes – far below Italy’s agricultural minimum wage of €7.13 an hour.

Yet the murder of Siddique as he fought for justice has shone a new light on Sicily’s “black labour”, and left a permanent mark on those who knew him.

“Every time you’d see him, he was smiling,” said Gul Noor Senzai, a friend who first met Siddique in 2017. “He was a good boy that helped others. Now, he’s gone forever. I can’t understand it.”