"Modern slave" migrants toil in Italy's tomato fields

Mon Sep 28, 2009 7:05am EDT
 
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By Silvia Aloisi

RIGNANO GARGANICO, Italy (Reuters) - After crossing half of Africa and surviving a perilous boat trip from Libya in search of a better life in Italy, Boubacar Bailo is now contemplating suicide.

One of an army of illegal immigrants hired to harvest tomatoes in the Puglia region, Bailo squats in a fetid cardboard shack restlessly waiting for a call to the fields.

Every year thousands of immigrants, many from Africa, flock to the fields and orchards of southern Italy to scrape a living as seasonal workers picking grapes, olives, tomatoes and oranges.

Broadly tolerated by authorities because of their role in the economy, they endure long hours of backbreaking work for as little as 15-20 euros ($22-$29) a day and live in squalid makeshift camps without running water or electricity.

"I never thought it would be like this in Italy. Even dogs are better off than us," said Bailo, a 24-year-old from Guinea struggling to survive in an area of Puglia known as the "Red Gold Triangle" which produces 35 percent of Italy's tomatoes.

"It's better to die than to live like this, because at least when you die your problems are over."

Things have been particularly bad this year in Puglia, whose tomatoes end up in dishes around the world, from the upscale restaurants of London to the homes of the village of San Marco just a few miles away.

The economic crisis forced factories in Italy's rich north to shut down or lay off employees, so more migrants than usual -- around 2,000 people -- have come here in search of work.   Continued...

 
<p>African immigrants sit in a shack in a makeshift camp in the countryside near the village of Rignano Garganico, southern Italy, September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Tony Gentile</p>