Mining for red gold

On 25th August, some 400 migrant farm workers totally blockaded two of the largest tomato processing factories in Europe, located in the industrial hub in the outskirts of the city of Foggia, in Puglia, southern Italy. They brought processing and logistics operations to a halt for more than six hours. The strike was the culmination of a year’s cycle of struggles, and was directed against the processing plants of Futuragri S.C.A. and Princes Industrie Alimentari S.r.L. The latter is a subsidiary of the multinational food giant Princes Ltd., owned since 1989 by the Mitsubishi Group and based in Liverpool, UK. Many of the 300 lorry drivers affected by the blockade also joined the farm workers in protesting against their employers, who force them to wait unpaid outside the factory for up to 24 hours. The farm workers and their allies are still in contention with management over two principle demands. Aside from demanding the implementation of contracts that conform to the legal standards for the sector, they also demand the regularisation of the immigration status of non-EU workers; making it legal for them to live and work within the country. This latter demand would be key to achieving the former for all workers, irrespective of nationality. Without regular immigration status the workers have no possibility of entering a regular work contract. In fact, as a result of demonstrations held over this year, the farm workers have succeeded in calling for an official meeting with representatives from the government and the local chief of police (who is responsible for matters relating to immigration), where they were able to negotiate the removal of some of the more arbitrary obstacles to renewing their leave to remain. They even succeeded in obtaining an amnesty for a small number of undocumented workers. (…) The story of these farm workers’ struggle serves to illustrate the underlying complexities of the so-called migrant crisis, revealing the way in which illegal and legal migrant labour is systematically exploited by a capitalist system which is, in fact, dependent on it. It also demonstrates the illusionary nature of our borders: the repression against illegal migrants in places like Ventimiglia on the border with France, or on the coast of Italy, where the full force of Europe’s repressive organs is amassed, can be contrasted with the situation in Puglia where the presence of thousands of illegal migrants is effectively tolerated by the authorities because they carry out necessary work for a pittance. The workers in the tomato fields have travelled great distances and crossed borders to seek out a better living, and yet their living and working conditions in Italy are often no better than the living and working conditions they suffered in their homes. There is an overwhelming sense that they have in some way been brought or are kept there to serve a purpose. Yet it is also true that the presence of a vast and invisible Eastern European workforce, nominally entitled to work regularly, and of a large and growing mass of precarious Italian workers, shows how the function of immigration laws in lowering the value of wages might have exhausted its purpose. This process is aided by EU enlargement policies and by the Europe-wide programme of austerity that has constituted an outright assault on the welfare systems and social rights of European states. In all cases, however, the misery of the workers, the constant reproduction and enforcement of exploitation, serves to make sure that the food giants can continue to make profit in a time of crisis, to bring us our low-cost tinned tomatoes.

Bethan Bowett-Jones in Mining for Red Gold (Novara)