Italy: The revolt of the Rosarno orange pickers against racism

The dramatic events that unfolded recently in the small southern Italian town of Rosarno highlight the terrible conditions that immigrant workers have to suffer in many parts of Europe. The bosses try and use the tactic of “divide and rule” to pit poor immigrant against poor Italian workers. It is the task of the labour movement organisations to offer an alternative and campaign to unite all workers against the real enemies, the bosses.

Italy: The revolt of the Rosarno orange pickers against racismThe recent developments in a little town called Rosarno in southern Italy reveal that in “civilised” Europe we already have elements of barbarism, which are being aggravated by the economic crisis. Rosarno is situated in the southern Italian region of Calabria, on the toe of the boot. On 7th January hundreds of immigrant workers from Africa were rampaging through the town, setting fire to rubbish bins, destroying shop windows and cars on their way and conducting a street battle with the police. The trigger for this sudden explosion of anger was when earlier in the day two Italian youths opened fire with an air gun from a car, shooting and wounding two workers from Africa who earn their money fruit picking in the town. One of them is an officially recognised political refugee from Togo with legal papers to reside in Italy.

It is not the first time African workers have protested in Rosarno. In December 2008 two immigrant workers were shot and seriously wounded. Then African workers also protested – at that time peacefully ‑ against the way they were being treated and against their appalling living and working conditions. This protest also led to the arrest of three businessmen, as they had clearly been holding workers in slave like conditions.

The region where Rosarno is situated is controlled by the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. They control everything. At their will factories are opened and closed, especially the ones for the processing of agricultural products like olives and oranges. In this way they also get subsidies from the state and the European Union for the “development” of the south. In 2007, for example, such a subsidies fraud was exposed.

Around 2,500 immigrant workers were living in and around Rosarno. They were either living in abandoned factories or shanties made out of cardboard and wooden boards. For the 1,000 workers who lived in an abandoned factory there were only 8 toilets and 3 showers. There was no electricity and until last year no running water. The living conditions of these workers were described by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) simply as “terrible”.

Immigrant farm labourers earn around 25 Euros for a 12 to 14 hour working day. According to The Economist out of this they often “cede €5 to overseers suspected of links with the ’Ndrangheta.” According to the CGIL trade union, about 50,000 immigrant workers around the country live in poor conditions similar to those in Rosarno. The union also says immigrants are paid “miserable salaries and have terrible hours, similar to slavery”. [1]

All this hardship has been inflicted on these people after they left their home countries, escaping from misery, unemployment, war and famine. Tens of thousands of Africans – asylum seekers, political refugees and unemployed ‑ every year attempt to make their way to Europe in the hope of a better life. On their way they are often handed from smuggler to smuggler, who make their money out of these desperate people, and they are packed into makeshift boats trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach countries like Italy, Spain, Malta or Greece. An unknown number of them do not arrive at their destination as they drown on the open sea after their boats sink. The bosses in Europe then exploit these “illegal” immigrants, counting on the fact that they will not rebel as they could easily be deported.

The Orange crop

Italy: The revolt of the Rosarno orange pickers against racismIn 1992 the first African workers arrived in Calabria. They were forced to work for very little money – being made to pay by the bosses for the falling price of oranges in the recent years. But this year there was not much work to do. The last season saw a much lower level of production of oranges due to bad weather. But more importantly, oranges from Rosarno became uncompetitive on the world market. The Economist writes:

“On December 11th the Italian farmers’ confederation said that the local citrus industry had been made ‘unsustainable’ by a flood of cheap Spanish oranges and Brazilian orange juice. Imported concentrate could be bought for €1.27 a kilo—53 cents less than production cost in Italy. The Rosarno riots were thus partly about the failure of southern Italy’s economy to cope with globalisation.“

We also read in the same article that:

“[…] many farmers preferred to leave their fruit to rot because it would cost more to get it picked than they could earn selling it. The lack of work (and profit) intensified the bitterness among outsiders and locals alike.” [2]

Antonio Lupini, vice-president of the local farmers’ association, told the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera that 800 million kilograms of citrus fruit were rotting on the trees. [3] This portrays in a twofold way the insanity of this inhuman economic system. Tons and tons of foodstuff is lying waste in the field, while millions of people worldwide suffer hunger, and thousands of workers who are ready to work in order to earn their living are forced to sit around doing nothing. These workers were only useful to their employers as long as they could make money out of them, when they were treated with disdain and forced to live like animals. This is the real reason behind the latest rebellion in Rosarno. The racist attack was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The workers have said enough is enough and have rebelled.

The rebellion continues

One day after the above mentioned rebellion the protest continued. The protestors carried placards saying “We are not animals”, calling attention to their desperate situation. They marched to the town hall where they demanded to see a government representative. The situation got heated when local residents set up a barricade near a meeting place for the immigrants. Media reports say that despite heavy police presence two immigrants were beaten with metal bars so ruthlessly, that one of the wounded had to be taken to hospital for brain surgery. Five other immigrants were deliberately run over by vehicles and two other immigrants were hit in the legs with shotgun pellets. In all 67 people were injured: 31 immigrants, 19 police and 17 residents.

Italy: The revolt of the Rosarno orange pickers against racismFrancesco Forgione is a former head of Italy's parliamentary anti-mafia commission. He said that “This is the very first time the Africans rebel against the local 'Ndrangheta mafia which dominates the fruit and vegetable businesses.” He continued that, “during their protest they even surrounded the house of an old boss in the Pesce clan, which is powerful locally, something the Calabrians have never done.” [4]

A few days later, on January 11, bulldozers began demolishing the shanty towns and the few possessions the fruit pickers had. Over 1,000 African workers had either been evacuated by police or had fled voluntarily. Seven of them were left behind in local hospitals, recovering from gunshot wounds and savage beatings. These workers were brought to holding centres in other parts of the south. The prefect of Bari, where 324 immigrants were taken to, said more than half of those who had been examined had temporary residence permits. The others were taken for internment at a so-called centre for identification and expulsion.

Racism – divide and rule

The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, who is from the right-wing and xenophobic Lega Nord [Northern League] party, claimed the tensions were a result of “too much tolerance towards clandestine immigration”, thus trying to put the blame on the African workers. But in fact, millions of immigrants, from Africa or Eastern Europe, are an important pillar of the Italian agricultural economy, especially of the south. Through racist laws, or the fact that many of them are illegal in Italy, they constitute a very cheap labour force. According to The Economist, “many sustain parts of the economy that would otherwise be uncompetitive.”

In a video published on France24, the news agency says that “some accuse the African workers of stealing their jobs, but Human Rights organisations say many Italians refuse to do the backbreaking work the immigrants accept in order to survive.” The interviewer in this video asks a local farmer “Who will pick the mandarins now?”, to which he replies “That is a question that neither I nor the others can answer.” [5] So when Roberto Calderoli from the Lega Nord suggests that with unemployment at 18% in the south, jobs should go to Italian citizens, this is pure demagogy.

Italy: The revolt of the Rosarno orange pickers against racismThe Berlusconi government is on the one hand trying to further tighten racist laws, and on the other is also coming out with vote catching statements like the ones above once these immigrant workers start to resist. It is no wonder that the right-wing agitation “against foreigners” is getting some echo in times of rising unemployment, precarious working conditions and the erosion of purchasing power – especially when there is no clear alternative put forward by the trade unions and the working class parties. The division between “residents” and “foreigners” is consciously promoted in order to provoke a conflict within the working class, thus allowing the mafia and employers to profit. It is a conflict between the most exploited layers of society, which only further deteriorates their working and living conditions. This war between the poor is only increasing the power of a few privileged. The polarization in the last decade between rich and poor has grown considerably. According to the Bank of Italy, in 2008 ten percent of Italian households held 48% of the country's wealth (in 2000 this figure was at 41%), whereas half of Italian families owned only 10% (in 2000 this was 23%). The rich are getting richer, while millions of working families are becoming poorer. The poison of racism is always a powerful tool of the ruling class in times when the anger that should be directed against the very system that is responsible for their dire situation is directed against the brothers and sister of their own class.

The Left must put forward a clear class based alternative

The struggle for human living and working conditions, to live in dignity and against every form of discrimination of skin colour, origin, race, religion or gender must be a focal point of the trade unions and the left, in the case of Italy especially of the PRC. It is necessary to effectively oppose every legal discrimination in the form of racist laws, oppose the attacks of the employers and also tackle the problems of the employment situation for workers in general, be they immigrant or resident. Racial hatred and violent attacks against immigrant workers and their organisations must be responded to not with empty appeals to the state or the police to intervene, but by organising defence for these class brothers and sisters.

It is vital for the working class parties all over the world to link up the struggle of immigrant workers with resident workers, as for example the struggle of the African fruit pickers with the struggle of Italian workers. There is no fundamental difference between the immigrant worker who is exploited in the orange groves in Calabria and the resident worker who works in underpaid precarious conditions in a factory or a shopping mall, or the young unemployed. They are all victims of an exploitative system which is driven by the logic of the market and profit. And the mafia is just an extreme expression of this logic. The events in Rosarno are an extreme example when the contradictions in a society that were building up over a time suddenly come to surface in an explosion. It is maybe the tip of the iceberg, but not an isolated case. All over Italy there are groups of workers involved in industrial action or are occupying their factories. For example the workers of Eutelia, a telecommunication company, have been occupying several plants of the company for months as a response to the sacking of around 2,000 workers. They can be an important ally of the immigrant workers, as they share the same economic concerns and the same class interests. We have to build for the unity of all workers, no matter of which origin, skin colour, language or religion, in the fight against capitalism. Not just in Italy. The contradictions of capitalism exist in the rest of Europe and in all the other countries of the globe. In the words of the Communist Manifesto: “The working men have no country.”


[1] Scores injured, migrants evacuated after days of unrest, France24

[2] Southern misery, The Economist

[3] Southern Italian town world's 'only white town' after ethnic cleansing, The Guardian

[4] Italians cheer as police move African immigrants out after clashes with locals, The Guardian

[5] Scores injured, migrants evacuated after days of unrest, France24