Italian authorities have carried out a sweeping operation that led to the arrest of seven people, including farmers and an alleged Senegalese gangmaster. Migrant workers had allegedly been forced to work very long shifts for just a few euros an hour.
A police operation on Thursday (June 17) carried out in the southern Italian provinces of Foggia and Campobasso led to the arrest of seven people, including three who were jailed and four who were placed under house arrest.
The suspects include local farmers and an alleged Senegalese gangmaster. Gangmasters are criminal recruiters who control and exploit workers.
The operation involved five local agricultural enterprises with overall annual revenues of around €2 million.
Officials seized real estate properties and assets worth a total of €1 million. Sources said the probe involved a fake intermediary, a company based in Orta Nova near Foggia, which hired on behalf of other enterprises farmhands who were employed in the fields.
The fictitious enterprise did not pay taxes, didn't provide individual protective equipment and did not respect security rules on the job. According to the sources, it hired 150 workers.
Complaint by African workers
The investigation began after two African workers filed a complaint in March 2020.
Police subsequently discovered that farmworkers were recruited by a gangmaster in the migrant tent camps of Borgo Mezzanone and the 'Gran Ghetto' of Rignano, housing thousands of foreigners working in the fields around Foggia, sources said.
Along with recruiting workers in the tent camps near Foggia, the suspects filed hiring papers called "Unilav" (a document to communicate new hires, dismissals and job extensions) and recorded the fake trade of agricultural equipment with the aim of hiding the illicit intermediary and exploitation of farmhands working in the fields.
'Grueling' work shifts
Carabinieri Major Ivano Bigica said "migrants worked through grueling shifts without food and even with water from the well instead of drinking water, even during the hottest hours of the day."
Workers were paid €5 per hour or a sum between €4 and €7.50 for each case they filled with tomatoes. Farmhands worked eight hours a day and they were also paid based on the number of cases they harvested, sources said.
The sources added that the workers were also filmed to record potential inefficiencies, like "tomatoes that were left dirty or cases positioned in the wrong way on lorries," so that an amount could be subtracted from their wages. Moreover, the 150 farmhands were forced to pay €5 to the driver that took them to their workplace.