The symbolic occupation of the Basilica di San Nicola by farm workers part of the union in Bari | Photo: ANSA
The symbolic occupation of the Basilica di San Nicola by farm workers part of the union in Bari | Photo: ANSA

Farmhands working in fields near Foggia in southern Italy have staged a protest in the basilica of Bari to call for the right to housing and the issuing of stay permits. Attacks on migrant shantytowns continue, said the agricultural workers' union USB.

''We are the ones harvesting the produce of this land. We are not asking for charity, we are calling for rights for everyone regardless of their nationality and skin color,'' said a group of farmhands employed in Foggia fields that staged a protest at the Bari basilica. About 60 took part in the symbolic occupation of the place of worship, the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, to draw the attention of the national government and the regional one on the issues of exploitation and the housing emergency. 

The protest lasted a couple of hours and ended after the migrants met with the archbishop of Bari-Bitonto, Father Francesco Cacucci, who pledged to bring their complaints to Puglia regional governor Michele Emiliano. He also promised to ask as a spokesman for their request to meet with the governor. 

Stones thrown at 2 migrants in the fields where they work 

The farmworkers arrived by bus from Borgo Mezzanone, San Severo, Manfredonia, Cerignola, and Lucera to call for better working and living conditions, housing, respect for contractual relations, and the issuing and renewal of stay permits within set time limits. They came from the fields of tomatoes and asparaguses where on Tuesday - while they were working for only a few euros per hour - two other workers were hit by stones thrown by an unknown individual in a car. The two migrants were original from Senegal and Guinea Bissau. 

Basilica of the saint who 'loves foreigners' 

In the basilica dedicated to a saint that Bari natives call a ''lover of foreigners'', the migrants sat in the pews and held up placards asking whether labor laws were still in force. ''On our side, there is an attitude to defend human dignity, no ifs or buts,'' said Father Cacucci in meeting with them. He stressed the importance of improving migrant reception and said that ''until we manage to do that, the idea of an invasion will be fostered on one side and human dignity will not be recognized on the other." Cacucci called on all to ''make proposals and not just denounce'' the situation. 

The initiative was organized by the USB Foggia Agricultural Workers Coordination as a ''fight against the indifference'' of the regional and national governments, union representative Aboubakar Soumahoro said, ''which seek to turn a social issue into one of public security." 

"In the Foggia countryside,'' he said, ''attacks on the 'shanties' continue, in order to raze to the ground the camps used by agricultural workers who have no alternative'' place to sleep at night. The migrant farmworkers urged responses from the government but chose a place of worship to draw attention to their voices because Pope Francis, they said, ''says that work gives men dignity but our work lacks dignity and rights. This is why we have decided to fight to regain our union, housing, social security and workplace safety rights. This fight is in memory of the many farmhands that have lost their lives in the agricultural sector, and to call for the issuing of stay permits in order to leave a state of forced invisibility.'' 

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