A tent camp for migrants at Masseria Boncuri, in Nardò (Lecce), where migrants work in the fields. | PHOTO/ARCHIVE/CLAUDIO LONGO
A tent camp for migrants at Masseria Boncuri, in Nardò (Lecce), where migrants work in the fields. | PHOTO/ARCHIVE/CLAUDIO LONGO

A group of Italian doctors launched an appeal in the British Medical Journal to stop the exploitation of migrants who work in Italian farming. The doctors said the migrants are field slaves who allow for Italian tomatoes to be sold at low prices worldwide year-round.

"Across the whole of Italy, agriculture counts the fallen like those on a battlefield," said an article in the British Medical Journal recounting the exploitation of migrant farm workers in Italy.

The authors cited their experience as global health activists and as part of the NGO Doctors with Africa CUAMM. "Over the past six years the number of agricultural workers who have died as a result of their work is more than 1,500," they wrote. "The workers are paid according to the amount of vegetables they collect rather than the time spent at work, or they are paid €12 for eight hours’ work under the supervision of Caporali, and they live in the “Ghetti.” These are shantytowns, isolated from city centers, without water or proper standards of hygiene, sanitation, or health services."

Their estimates say there are about 100,000 migrants of various nationalities in 50-70 shantytowns spread throughout the country far from urban centers. No official census exists.

The dramatic figures of exploitation

The article provides figures that show the dilemma is consuming Italy, despite a law against the "agro-mafia" that was passed to fight the phenomenon. On top of those who died in the fields, the authors said other victims were killed by the "caporalato" (gang leaders) in shootings and other incidents. The NGO, in partnership with various local institutions, has been providing health assistance since 2015 with mobile stations. It has provided a total of 4,800 medical consultations (an average of 43 per day) and seen 2,880 patients.

The migrants' health problems stem mainly from the terrible work conditions and the poor hygienic conditions that they are forced to live in. "Our data show that the main reasons for the consultations were: fatigue and/or musculoskeletal conditions (46 percent); dental problems (19 percent); respiratory symptoms (10 percent); dermatological symptoms (8 percent); obstetric/gynecological symptoms (4 percent); trauma (4 percent); cardiovascular problems (4 percent); ophthalmic symptoms (2 percent); metabolic issues (2 percent); and psychiatric problems (1 percent). Almost 80 percent of the patients required pharmacological treatment," the doctors wrote in BMJ.

"No clear and definite healthcare pathways are in place to make the health interventions fast and efficient. It is hard to imagine that this situation will improve given current political trends in Italy and the 'Decreto Sicurezza' - a new law regulating migration - and the fact that sees this as a matter of national security only," they said.

Appeal to 'put an end to exploitation'

"We must put a stop to the exploitation of migrant farm workers, which makes it possible for Italian tomatoes to be sold at a low cost worldwide. But how much do these tomatoes really cost? What is the human cost of these products?" the doctors wrote.

They said there needs to be a coordinated, multi-sector effort. "Health, migration, the economy, sustainable development, and justice are all interlinked facets of our world. All of us need to stand up and fight exploitation, discrimination, racism, and egotism, however disguised their forms might be," they wrote.


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