Collective militant research: building on the experience of a volunteer camp with migrant workers in southern Italy

Posted: January 30th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: General, ricerca militante | Comments Off on Collective militant research: building on the experience of a volunteer camp with migrant workers in southern Italy

The Grand Ghetto is an apparently spontaneous African settlement, a “shanty town” in the middle of the tomato fields that surround the city of Foggia, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. During the harvest season, from mid-June till the end of September, it hosts around 800 inhabitants, both men and women, almost exclusively migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, both documented and undocumented, who flock to the area from other parts of the country seeking to earn some cash. During the winter months its population drops down to around 200 (mostly undocumented) migrant workers, who live in the eight run-down brick houses around which an ever-increasing number of shacks has been built, destroyed and rebuilt every summer since the late 1990s.

To some extent, the Ghetto operates as a “no man’s land”, providing the perfect terrain for conducting all sorts of informal and illegal business, from drug dealing and prostitution to the recruitment of labour by gangmasters. It functions to ensure the reproduction and control of a large amount of exploitable labor power, always in excess of demand and, thus, cheap. A place that, whilst marginal in many respects, is hardly remote, as it is less that 20 kilometers from the big town of Foggia and is constantly crossed by an incessant traffic of people of different nationalities that use it as a centre for their various activities. It is the largest of a myriad informal settlements, mostly abandoned farmhouses with no facilities, where tens of people are crammed. These dot the area known as ‘Capitanata’: a vast plain destined for the most part to intensive tomato monoculture. It is estimated that around 15.000 seasonal workers, mostly migrants, populate it every year during harvest. Whilst the Ghetto is populated by Africans, the majority of farm labourers in the Capitanata area are Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.

These marginal spaces are inserted into a political-economic framework in which the whole chain of agricultural production, from the fields to the supermarkets, is increasingly controlled by ‘agri-mafias,’ where distribution companies make most of the profits, and harvest (like distribution, to a slightly lesser extent) is done employing completely illegal labour power (whether autochtonous or migrant, documented or not). The same framework, of course, restricts mobility and allows for the exploitation of migrant labour, through laws that tie permits to work contracts and create structural vulnerability by instituting the threat of detention and deportation, de facto criminalising unemployment.

In the summer of 2012, from the beginning of august to mid-september, an Italy-wide, heterogeneous militant network collaborated to the construction and running of a temporary camp within the Ghetto. The project grafted itself onto, and actively re-shaped, an already existing platform of intervention set up by missionaries, that relied on volunteers to teach Italian to those living in the Ghetto. It was out of such experience that our action-research collective was born, bringing together the diverse but intertwining interests, expertise and militant outlook of students, researchers, precarious workers. Here, we explore and evaluate the research dimension of our militant experience in and around the Ghetto, seeking to elaborate on possible directions for our militant research, in view of future projects.

The network, now named ‘campagne in lotta,’ began to form in the aftermath of the infamous ‘Rosarno riots’ of January 2010, when African workers angrily reacted to the latest in a long series of violent, race-based aggressions against them, perpetrated by the local population. This sparked the reactions of locals themselves and of the authorities, who proceeded to the mass deportation of thousands of migrants. Their diaspora gave rise first to the Rosarno African Workers’ Assembly in Rome, and to a movement against institutions and landowners, for the regularisation of illegal labour and of undocumented migrants. Activists, small farmers, workers and many more coalesced around this experience, giving rise to a progressively expanding and morphing network that gives voice to different demands, connecting the exploitation of farm labour to the stifling of small producers by distribution networks, and also to consumers’ rights to high-quality and fairly priced products.

Thus, its intervention in the Ghetto represents part of a wider and still embryonic project, which attempts to connect similar situations of exploitation and marginality, as they unfold in different localities across the whole of Italy (and, hopefully, beyond). This cross-territorial outlook was established as a consequence of practical experience that also included observation, research and analysis, and more specifically by considering the circuit of seasonal farm labour that sees periodical flows of migrants moving from Apulia to Basilicata in the summer, for the harvesting of tomatoes and other vegetables, or from Piedmont (for fruit picking), to Calabria for the picking of oranges and clementines in winter, and then to Sicily or Campania, again for farm labour, in the spring months. Since its foundation, the network has supported and put in relation different instances of struggle, from the strike of the migrant farm labourers of Masseria Boncuri, Nardò (Apulia) in the summer of 2011, to the collective demands of migrant fruit pickers in Saluzzo (Piedmont), in the summer of 2012.

Hence, this militant project, and our own contribution within it, works towards the collective elaboration of a methodology of intervention, and therefore also of analytical tools that can help to understand and seek to impact on the contexts in which it finds itself. The underlying aim of the project carried out in the Ghetto (as that of the network in general) can then be defined as the participant and participated observation of the work and living conditions of migrant seasonal workers, but also a reflexive standpoint on our own militant practices. Thus, by ‘participant’ observation we mean a daily, analytically attentive presence on the ground, carried out somewhat indirectly and informally through several activities (such as a language school, a radio, a bike workshop, for example) that often had as their prime rationale the provision of active solidarity. Hence, if related to the ‘traditional’ concept of participant observation as part of the social-scientific toolkit, our own militant research method does not consider the research context/object as pre-given, but actively contributes to its shaping and modification. Furthermore, the collective dimension of our militant research differentiates it from more standard models of participant observation, usually the lonely enterprise of a partly alienated, partly integrated academic researcher who seldom takes political or ethical standpoints about the experiences s/he undergoes during her/his project ‘in the field.’ The aim of our militant research is first of all that of getting to know one another (militants or not) in our multiple differences, to elaborate a body of knowledge on work rights and other issues and, above all, to develop a common language of struggle and understand what possible political avenues might be travelled to break away from an ever more widespread condition of exploitation and precarity. The term ‘participated,’ on the contrary, refers to the involvement of local actors that can function as ‘mediators’ (a figure introduced by one of the propounders of co-research, Romano Alquati) between those who came to the area as militants and those who live and operate there, who might themselves be militants and part of the network, but also people with differing viewpoints and affiliations.

As mentioned, the project took shape through several collective actions, inside and outside the Grand Ghetto, that were functional to an ever deeper understanding of, and incisiveness on, the reality on the ground and of the context in which it is inserted. Actions can be grouped around two main threads:

  • those aimed at brining active solidarity and at building critical awareness: a radio, a bike workshop, an Italian-language school, workshops on legal and other issues, discussions, film nights and outreach activities.

  • Actions more oriented towards decision-making, analysis and knowledge sharing (assemblies, the production of reports and articles, the passing on of information and experience to the incoming volunteers/militants).

Through the first kind of activities, it was possible to get to know the local territory and its complexity from a closer vantage point, seeking to break the physical and social marginality that migrant workers are forced into in this as in other contexts. The pirate radio, run by workers themselves together with activists, the bike workshop and the Italian-language school represented, above all, daily occasions for mutual encounters, both among workers and between workers and militants, where it was possible to establish forms of open engagement on living and work conditions.

On some occasions, and especially through informal discussion inspired by one or the other activity, it was possible to achieve moments of mutual recognition, where the exploitation of those who work in the fields and of those who experience it in other contexts, albeit with different modalities and intensities, was identified as a shared experience. In other instances, divisions between ‘us,’ mostly Italian and white activists/volunteers, and ‘them,’ black African workers, were reinforced. Less structured activities, as moments for information-sharing and sociality, also served to establish relations between militants/volunteers and workers that in some way unhinged the ‘ghetto’ dimension and its segregating effects. This was the case, for example, with a meeting where the latest amnesty for undocumented migrants, promoted by the Italian government and due to take place in september-october 2012, was discussed, seeking to tease out its mechanisms, objectives and political implications; or of film nights where movies such as a documentary on the figure of former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, also inspired informal political debate. In this framework, our work also focused on establishing relations with the 40-odd women who live and work in the Ghetto (as sex workers, cooks, waitresses, often in combination, as providers of reproductive services). On the one hand, albeit with some difficulty and despite a general sense of mistrust on their part, it was possible to get to know a few of them more closely, through the Italian-language school and a discussion on the radio. On the other, the bulk of our encounters took place in more informal, and often more intimate, situations: one-to-one conversations through which it was also possible to identify daily practices of individual and collective self-defense. Furthermore, other activities were carried out also outside the Grand Ghetto, such as outreach missions in the surrounding countryside, following the directions of local ‘mediators’ who could locate migrant workers’ abodes.

These were all attempts to go beyond an isolation that is of course functional to the reproduction of an exploitative system; to shatter, through practices of active solidarity, mutual, non-authoritarian education and collective debate, the repressive action of marginality, of which the Grand Ghetto is one among many material instantiations, moving away from ethical anti-racism and from forms of ‘charity-like’ solidarity that sees migrants as a passive and victimised category in need of care.

Analysis and knowledge sharing are intertwined with the actions reported above, and they took shape especially through assemblies and report-writing. These steps, crucial to reach consensual decision-making and to share the experiences of militants, who came and went in turns during the month-and-a-half of this experimental project, represent the starting point for the formulation of a common political language. The contamination between different skills, knowledges and interests favours and accelerates the creation of collective practices. These, as a consequence of their very conceptualisation and application, carry with them the potential, if not the full realisation, for the self-organisation of migrant workers, together with militants, at the Grand Ghetto.

The reflections and analyses springing from this project of the national network ‘campagne in lotta’ move towards two distinct but closely related directions, which represent the heart of such collective action and elaboration. On the one hand, the method adopted to approach the context in question must be considered. Such method has action (politically minded intervention on the ground) at its centre, as the purpose for which analysis and research are carried out. On the other hand, it is also necessary to identify and elaborate our political goal – at the local/particular level, as well as on a more general, wider plane. Knowledge of the context and of its actors becomes essential to be able to build real and efficacious practices of self-determination/awareness and of struggle with and as workers.

Hence, once our project at the Ghetto came to a conclusion, it was first of all interesting to note how action, including observation and collective research, allowed for wider, deeper and more powerful knowledge of the context of analysis. Indeed, during the course of our intervention many of the variables, notions and experiences that made up the collectively shared information and initial data were progressively modified and in some cases entirely overturned. More specifically, our interaction with migrant workers at the Ghetto highlighted the limitations of a political approach that considers agriculture as a self-contained employment sector, given that most of those seeking work in Capitanata are not in fact inserted into a yearly circuit of seasonal farm labour, but precarious workers that shift from one occupation to the other, especially given the current economic climate. Furthermore, the significant presence of women at the Ghetto also highlighted the importance for political demands to relate production to reproduction, in their gendered division and within a system that burdens workers, and especially migrant workers, with reproductive (and productive) costs. Such dimension has so far been marginal within the network’s projects, and will need to be strengthened in the future. This is a practical demonstration of how collective action can shatter the state of things, creating contradictions and opening up new fronts.

The added value of such intervention is therefore, without a doubt, its collective dimension. In turn, the more such collectivity presents itself as diversified and divergent, the more it proves effective. Different standpoints on the object in question, personal knowledges and individual capacities contribute to elaborate representations and analyses that render our politically minded understanding more complex and nuanced. As a consequence, future avenues of struggle also become more easily identifiable.