A European answer? Of continents, containers and un/domesticated movements

Posted: September 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: General | Comments Off on A European answer? Of continents, containers and un/domesticated movements


‘This is not Italy,’ African farm labourers often say when complaining about the living and working conditions they experience in the many shantytowns, informal settlements and labour camps that dot rurban spaces of intensive agro-industrial production. Abandoned, derelict buildings or favela-style dwellings without running water and no connection to the electric grid, haunted, in some fortunate instances, by the sound of generators and usually cut off from urbanity by muddy, pot-hole-littered roads. But also container- and tent-camps skirting the outer layers of cities and towns from the north to the south of what, on maps, is marked as Italian territory. One kind of settlement morphs into the other: this is where the institutional meets (and tags onto) the informal, and vice-versa; where rural meets urban; and where political geographies blur.
The largest among those hybrid in-between places, the so-called Grand Ghetto, lies in the Capitanata Plain of northern Apulia, some fifteen kilometres from the city of Foggia. During the tomato harvest season the Ghetto hosts more than 1000 people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. Here, newcomers who recently crossed the Mediterranean meet longer-term dwellers and people with a history of reverse social mobility – from up- to downwards, from the country to the city and back again after losing their decades-long jobs as a consequence of the economic crisis. They co-exist with seasoned gang-masters, sex workers and petty traders for whom farm workers represent the main source of income. Workers live in shacks built with cardboard, scrap wood, corrugated iron, asbestos and plastic sheets, or in overcrowded, abandoned farmhouses with no facilities, hoping that gangmasters or farmers will recruit them for as many days of grossly underpaid and (more or less) irregular piecework as possible. The 40-odd women who share their living conditions sell sexual and other kinds of services – food, drinks and more, in the many eateries located at the front of the shacks. Roma gypsies and gagé locals come daily to trade in clothes, shoes, chicken, new and second-hand goods of all kinds. Stolen and illegal commodities, of course, ‘rightly’ belong here too. Locals also come by night, especially during the weekend, to purchase the services of the African ladies at highly discounted prices compared to the already cheap street fares. Journalists, film directors, politicians, trade unionists, researchers, activists, priests, scouts, other concerned civil-society members, safari-lovers, voyeurs and ‘experts’ from all corners of the country, of Europe, and sometimes beyond, complete the picture.
Expressing their surprise at the situation they encountered when arriving in such places for the first time, migrants would often confess: ‘I never thought a place like this could exist in Italy’. Such shock is of course a common feature in many migrants’ narratives, conveying their disappointment when they first realise that their expectations about Europe do not match with a reality in which people beg, sleep rough, and have trouble making ends meet. And yet, places like the Ghetto, or the tent-camp-turned-shantytown located in the Gioia Tauro Plain, Calabria, carry a surplus of peculiarity.
On their part, some Italian citizens also (mis)recognise the exceptional, seemingly out-of-place nature of these dwellings: ‘If you want to see what Africa looks like, you should come here’ – such is the mantra one hears over and again from the scores of visitors eager to uncover ‘the dark side of the Italian tomato’, as one rendition would have it, or the ‘blood stains’ on the oranges and clementines sold across the continent and the globe, raw or processed. However, countering such representations, many ghetto/camp dwellers are keen to point out that ‘no such places exist in Africa, I have met these places in Italy for the first time’. Others, perhaps in light of their different biographical experience, seem less confident. In his book, Cameroonian citizen, short-lived media star and trade unionist, Yvan Sagnet (hailed as one of the leaders of the ‘Nardò strike’ that in the summer of 2011 saw several hundred African tomato and watermelon pickers in southern Apulia demand fairer wages and work contracts) describes his impressions of the camp where the wildcat strike would erupt: ‘[W]as Boncuri, we asked ourselves, Africa or Italy?’ (93).

Out of place, indeed.

So what are these zones of exception, what exactly makes them such, and where are they? Laboratories for the spectacularised, just-in-time exploitation, pacing and containment of a segregated, soaring and racialised underclass, they are also spaces where new formations of subjectivity and of struggle emerge. The strike in Nardò and the revolts that erupted in Rosarno in 2008 and 2010 (when the tent camp was not yet a reality, and migrants lived in large informal settlements across different abandoned industrial and residential sites) poignantly demonstrated how the constant play of control against subversion drives change.
Yet, before asking the resistance question, let us start from the initial puzzle posed by those who encounter ‘ghettoes’ for the first time: where exactly are these places and the people they host?


Discussing the work of artist Ursula Biemann, titled ‘Contained Mobility’ (2004), Brian Holmes gives us some hints on how we might begin to address these questions. Biemann herself, speaking of the subject of her video installation (a displaced long-term asylum seeker filmed in his container-house, side by side with images of cargo ships), describes her subject thus: Anatol Zimmermann has ‘come ashore in an offshore place, in a container world that only tolerates the translocal state of not being of this place – nor of any other, really – but of existing in a condition of permanent non-belonging, of juridical non-existence’. Such condition might well be compared to that of migrant farm workers living in one or another container-form, in more or less metaphorical terms.
Containers may indeed be the forever-temporary homes for some African fruit pickers, for example in Saluzzo (Piedmont), or in Rosarno. In the same locations, alongside metal boxes, tent camps expressly built for seasonal(ised) labourers signal the latter’s even more temporary and yet often chronic condition, creating hierarchies of precarity and entitlement where time is frozen in an eternal and uncertain present. The labour-camp model is progressively spreading to other agro-industrial contexts that register the presence of sub-Saharan African workers, such as the Capitanata Plain (Foggia), the Bradano-Vulture region of Basilicata or the Trapani province (Sicily).
For Holmes, the container in turn embodies the social form of just-in-time production, where consumer desires are monitored and modelled by supply chains in which retail holds the lion’s share, and where mobility and its control are everything (from workers to commodities, through managers and consumers). Indeed, agricultural production in Italy as across much of the globe is no exception to this pattern, with large supermarket chains or wholesale retailers controlling ever more directly the entire process of production and distribution. And relying on a large and internally fragmented reserve army of utterly precarious migrant labour, segregated through racialised zoning processes that increasingly rely on the same humanitarian dispositif which regulates their survival, and extracts value from their very existence – from the sea to the camp.
Thus, aside from living spaces other forms of containerisation, of permanent displacement, are simultaneously in place. Some workers are undocumented, and hence non-existent in juridical terms (or, rather, existing in their exclusion from the right to have rights), suspended in that space of non-belonging that Biemann describes. Yet, many more do have some form of (often temporary) juridical recognition, ever more frequently granted on humanitarian grounds. But their condition seems nonetheless one of containment in places out of place.
After having displaced millions, the military-humanitarian complex – perfected in the aftermath of NATO’s Libyan war and carried forward by the (part EU-funded) Italian rescue operation tellingly named ‘Mare Nostrum’, then morphed into Frontex-led ‘Operation Triton’ – awards some of those arriving by sea (not in containers but in overcrowded boats) with an always precarious and revocable right to stay on the arbitrary grounds of exceptional circumstances, once again institutionalising precarity. And, incidentally, who is the subject of that pronoun, ‘our’, qualifying the Mediterranean sea, a borderzone? Can we reclaim a different ‘us’ for it? Is this a ‘European question’ as Nicholas De Genova5 posed it? We shall return to this.
Humanitarianism, like war, is (also) business. The recent bursting of the ‘Mafia Capitale’ scandal, involving public officials, fascist-leaning mafia cartels and third-sector organisations (where one cannot be clearly distinguished from the other), summed it all up impeccably: one of the main defendants, his phone tapped, plainly explained how ‘migrants are more lucrative than drugs’.
Not only can the lives saved at sea be put to work in Italy’s ‘green factory’ at ever-decreasing rates – in fact, many agro-industrial areas also host long-term asylum-seeker reception centres (which, in turn, often outgrow into shantytowns) -, thus making the previous regime of migration regulation obsolete. As Dines and Rigo point out, it is no coincidence that since the ‘North African Emergency’ that followed the Libyan war no annual quotas for labour migrants have been issued by the Italian government. What is more, the entire lives of these ‘containerised subjects’ are increasingly monetised – by means, for example, of private contracts, sponsored by local authorities as in the case of the Grand Ghetto, for the provision of portable toilets and drinking water, or of entire camps where they are to be lodged. Once established, emergency, as we know, reproduces itself (and profit alongside with it). It becomes a permanent device of government.
Furthermore, humanitarian emergencies made ordinary also eclipse the reality of labour. The type of work migrants end up performing, as one of the few opportunities available, partakes of that non-belonging too, which is embodied by the containerised asylum seeker turned excess workforce. Or, rather, we may more accurately speak of differential belonging (to paraphrase Mezzadra and Neilson’s reconceptualisation of the inclusion/exclusion dyad as a continuum), whereby persons are increasingly categorised, labelled, contained and ghetto-ised according to an ever multiplying set of parameters and dispositifs.
Sub-Saharan Africans belong to ghettoes or camps – like Roma people. They too work in the fields of Apulia and Calabria, often with their entire families, and in many cases move back and forth between Romania or Bulgaria and Italy, or other parts of Europe. And increasingly so in the last decade. Indeed, the spectacular exposure-cum-invisibilisation of the containerised black workforce masks a much more complex and nuanced reality, where the majority of agricultural day labourers in many areas are EU citizens, and not all of Roma descent.9
Whilst those who arrive by sea are contained in humanitarian-cum-labour camps, together with fellow black migrants who were displaced because of the crisis and with other populations made ‘nomadic’ or ‘seasonal’, an even more numerous, docile and readily disposable army of workers is in constant supply from Europe’s eastern peripheries. Given the availability of large reserve armies of labourers, after more than 30 years of restrictive immigration laws in the context of neo-liberal restructurings, all workers earn extremely low salaries. Often they have no work contract, or a fictitious one, which in any case is grossly infringed: working days are twice as long as prescribed, with no recognition of extra time; hourly rates are half the minimum wage, and in many cases during harvest workers are paid at piece rate; no social insurance is paid on their behalf, whilst intermediaries of different sorts (in some cases workers’ fellow nationals or even relatives) erode part of their salaries in exchange for transport and food, and on account of their brokering role with farm owners or companies.
Here, ‘the container’ is not only a geographical/physical space, but also a system for the organization and disciplining of work that functions through multiple dispositifs: legal and extra-legal, more broadly social and relational, sometimes physically violent and coercive. They may be predicated on kinship, on common origin or language, or vice-versa on complete misrecognition of common humanity. Sexual difference is one such dispositif, which subjects women (usually from Eastern Europe) to a further form of exploitation in the form of harassment, binding work and salary to female employees’ willingness to provide farm owners with free sexual services. In other cases, as with the Africans, women are locked in the role of care providers – sex included, at appallingly low rates ranging between 5 and 10 euros. Their wages are locked to those of farm workers, and thus bind them to even higher levels of exploitation.
As far as the law (and its transgression) are concerned, different bureaucratic tools, and multiple, arbitrary breeches of ‘normal’ bureaucratic procedures and legal prescriptions, bar different categories of people or different individuals from accessing different sets of rights. People who are nomadic (by choice or by force, where of course the line between one and the other is anything but clear-cut), or who do not live in ‘proper’ houses recognisable as such by the institutional apparatus, are arbitrarily denied residency rights – and thus access to the national healthcare system (but for emergency care), for example, or the ability to obtain a bank account or a driving license. EU citizens from the peripheries can formally enjoy ‘freedom’ of movement similarly to their western counterparts, but in practice many are excluded from healthcare for residency or other reasons. And their greater inter-national mobility makes for their readiness to accept even worse labour conditions compared to their African colleagues, who cannot spend their yearly wages in their country of origin. Of course, immigration status is another such differentiating device for non-EU citizens, as mentioned.
Furthermore, the process of ‘containerisation’ is certainly not peculiar to the sphere of agro-industrial production, but part of a wider trend. Particular kinds of zoning invest many areas of the globe and many facets of production, distribution and consumption (where these phases cannot even be clearly separated any longer, for value is extracted from each of them). More broadly, we might say they are tools of ‘government’ in the Foucauldian sense. Alongside labour camps and agricultural districts, we also witness the proliferation of different forms of spatial organisation (read enclosure): special economic zones, foreign trade zones, financial districts, offshore enclaves, new cities-within-cities, gated communities and much more. As a whole, they complicate any linear, continuous and totalising representation of territorial sovereignty and the law, and thus of borders. Indeed, borders are fragmenting and proliferating, whilst the state and its laws become an instrumental tool for government.11 National, continental, economic, cultural, ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ borders articulate to one another to form ‘hybrid’ dispositifs of control and regulation. As we have seen, such proliferation does not give rise to binary distinctions between inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. In other words, if no-one is immune from containerisation, some containers are more spacious, airy and pleasant (but also costly) than others. Some containers encapsulate others. Or, simply, containers might belong to different orders altogether.
Ultimately, human beings’ flows and movements are processed in similar ways to those of commodities, information, and money. In fact, they too can be channeled and containerized; they too are managed by law, made legal or illegal; they too yield a profit, when the media spectacle turns them into spectral, shallow characters, into mere examples of an undesirable life (where, in this alleged undesirability, lies the only difference between them and the commodified advertising people); they too are subject to economic gambling (for instance, they are the matter on which the derivatives of the military-humanitarian complex blossom). Sometimes they are actually imported, as it happens with the EU’s newer citizens; sometimes they live in extraterritorial zones; sometimes they experience both conditions together.
The Grand Ghetto which we described at the beginning of this chapter is one such zone. It arose and grows in the middle of land owned by the Caccavelli Group, a consortium of agricultural producers, which “deals directly with the national and international large-scale agricultural retail trade”. The development of the Grand Ghetto, and of other ghettoes in the area, is not at all a collateral effect as we are led to believe, but the result of a specific formation of capital which recalls plantation-style set-ups and at the same time is projected into the future of Made in Italy export districts.
The new logistical geography of Europe, which in contemporary agribusiness is the very geography of mass distribution, is characterised by a polycentric development on a regional scale, by the creation of distribution networks, of hubs, of districts that are interconnected even at a great distance, and apparently disconnected from their immediate surroundings. We can already make out the contours of an economically and functionally integrated continental web. Large globalising capitals are eager to put it in place, and European institutions are supporting it, for instance through the funding of new Rail Freight Corridors and other infrastructure spaces. The EU is a dispositif for the production of space as well, in the sense that Henri Lefebvre gave to this expression. It is historical speed becoming space, dis-placing local balances, modifying people and commodity flows, digging new tunnels underneath the Alps. The EU integrates differentially. It is the process of creation of a new geography, a globalising force, perfectly synergistic with that of centralized capitals, which spatially expresses itself through a web of enclaves, terminals, and other zones where abstract, digital, economic-governmental thought becomes a(n) (extra)territorial configuration.
The Grand Ghetto fits perfectly within this new continental (and global) geography: or, rather, both share the same historical speed. In fact, the Ghetto is the result of the combined activity of a changing form of capital and of continental policies in the economic and social field. People who transit from a node to another, getting stuck in and beside the network of Italian agro-industry (and of humanitarian profit), are the mirror image of the incredible and (from the point of view of labour, health and the environment) irrational mobility guaranteed to agricultural products – and more generally to the flows of commodities or money.
The Grand Ghetto, like every other similar, ever-spreading form of dwelling, is often described as a margin. Now we can realise that, from a different point of view, it lies at the core of an eccentric typology of space, which is produced on a European (and thus global) level. The Ghetto arises in a nodal space not so different from a Free Zone or from a financial district. Then, to those African labourers who claim “this is not Italy”, we can answer “you are right: this is the EU”.


A specific containment device, the European Union appears as a significant dispositif, one which we wish to bring to the front, in the governmental chain that re-articulates places, peoples and the relationships between and among them. It exceeds any political and geographical border: the EU is not in Europe, it is a global machine which works within an expansive – and at the same time defensive – paradigm. This is so at the level of both migration and agricultural policies, of processes of expansion and externalisation of its frontiers and borders, through war as much as through bureaucracies.
Looking at patterns of migration in southern Europe, we are immediately led from tiny sun-burnt islands in the middle of the sea, such as Lampedusa – which serve as backgrounds to the spectacularised staging of an invasion (one which includes the zombified spectres of those the militarised sea has swallowed, who only in some cases shall deserve a last, wooden box to be contained in for eternity) – to the (themselves secluded) spaces in the heart of the containing-continent dispositif, where many decisions are made and lives shaped.

Remember Schengen?

Internal ‘freedom of movement’ (for those with the right kind of passport, bien sûr) re-positioned European borders towards the Community’s outer edges. The beginnings of migration to Italy roughly coincide with the implementation of the Schengen Treaties, initially ratified by France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium aboard a boat (uncanny resonances haunt this choice of location) on the river Moselle, at the intersection of three national borders, in 1985 – but fully adopted only in the late 1990s. At the time of its initial sealing, signatories introduced further restrictions on migration which had to be abided by all adhering states, including a quota system and increasing border controls. Italy, like Spain and Greece, thus became European borderlands, and entry points for migrants en route to northern Europe.
At the same time, restrictions in immigration made of asylum one of the few, indeed the main remaining channel to get legal status for non-EU migrants. And along came the externalisation of border controls and the Dublin regulations, once again confining asylum seekers coming from sea and land to Europe’s southern edges. Hence, we can link the out-of-place spaces with which we began to the post-Schengen Euro-Mediterranean borderzone. Camp-Ghettoes are ‘decompression chambers’16 for that excess of bodies that the sea, the air, the land carry to EU shores, driven by aspirations, desires, dreams and hopes stronger than any attempt at crushing them.
Then came EU enlargement to countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria – and with it new patterns of labour mobility. Seasonality could become Europe-wide, and not intra-national as with the yearly circuits of agricultural labour, where those trapped by the border regime (because they did not possess the right kinds of papers) moved from one harvest to the other. Whilst patterns of internal mobility have not disappeared (and might even have witnessed an increase in absolute numbers, as a consequence of the Libyan crisis and its production of ‘excess black bodies’), in relative terms intra-European seasonal mobility plays an ever more central role for the organisation of the agricultural workforce. Invisibilised by the military-humanitarian spectacle of non-EU bodies (rescued or buried first, examined, contained and subsequently put to work), European agricultural workers are, in some regions, the majority of the seasonal labour force. They are paid the same wages, and sometimes less – indeed, since their first arrivals, still as extra-EU citizens, salaries have lost half of their absolute value.
Whilst increasing numbers of potential workers might have contributed to the fall of wages in agriculture, several other factors, many of which also internal to the European dispositif, must also be considered. Chronologically, Common Agrarian Policies (CAPs) are doubtlessly the first, and they are quantitatively significant as well. This is one of the areas of European governance where a unitary direction has been in place for longest (since the 1960s), and has had the highest amount of common resources at its disposal: for the period 2014-2020, 362,8 billion euros have been allocated, corresponding to 37,8% of the total EU budget. Whilst agricultural policies have undergone several changes through the decades, analysts indicate that their effects have tended towards a progressive concentration of agricultural land in fewer hands, with a visible reduction in the number of small and medium farms. Concomitantly, the prices paid to producers have progressively fallen, also as a consequence of large-scale, global processes of industrialisation of the agri-food chains, in the context of just-in-time and to-the-point neo-liberal restructuring.
Heavy competition from subsidised EU products, as well as land grabbing and policies of structural adjustment have heavily affected small subsistence farmers in poorer regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, who in many cases were (and are still being) turned into migrant wage labourers in agriculture and in other sectors. And, let us not forget, processes of large-scale displacement are also the result of another great European dispositif: that of war. The new European wars inside and outside its (shifting and ambiguous) borders – Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ukraine, to mention just the most blatant cases-, as much as the silent war against the poor the world over, waged also by means of EU austerity, have effects on migratory flows and attempts at their containment (where border control is itself part of a military-industrial complex, as we have already noted).
At the same time, production everywhere is ever more directly controlled by large-scale retail players who compress wholesale prices and force small farmers out of business. Of course, the highest price is paid by workers, whose reproduction costs are also outsourced, first to their countries of origin and subsequently to the informal economy that we gave a glimpse on earlier.

‘The zone’, then, is a fully EU/ropean product.


Now for some good news and hopeful collective projects. Containters are not air-tight, and wherever they proliferate so does resistance. Of course, to fight against such gigantic machines as EU border policies, austerity, agri-business, military-industrial-humanitarian complexes and infrastructures of many other sorts is no simple endeavour. Even when struggles do spark up, in the situations we described here they could easily backfire – as it was the case with the wildcat strike that involved over 400 casual farm workers in Nardò, southern Apulia, in 2011. After their requests were accepted, and some farm owners put on trial for gross violations of labour and criminal law, African workers could not find employment in the area any longer, and were substituted by Eastern Europeans. At the same time, undeniably, this was one of the most significant migrant workers’ struggles in Italian history to date, all the more so given the dire conditions in which it took shape. And it was not an altogether isolated incident: ever since 1989, farm workers’ struggles have marked the political significance of migrants as subjects of struggle and change. Villa Literno, Rosarno, Castelvolturno, Castelnuovo Scrivia, Saluzzo, Foggia: these are some of the places, across the length of the Italian peninsula, where smaller or bigger instances of resistance against containment of the agricultural workforce have occurred, and which have encompassed demands ranging from better working conditions to proper housing, recognition of legal status and the right to work, and physical safety from racist attacks. In many cases, these have been articulated together in single instances of struggle, which gave these mobilsations the character of truly social strikes, anticipating and in some ways inspiring more conventional social movements. They have inspired (and in some cases were inspired by) militant projects aimed at opening up these enclosures, at building couter-camps and alternative infrastructures, for which research such as the one we attempt to carry out is a crucial weapon, to be able to trace the workings of those chains that bind shantytowns at the southern European borderzones with supermarkets in large metropolises across the continent and beyond, through factories, warehouses, lorries and ships, ports and roads, identifying their weaker links. But our research as one aspect of the practices of mutualism and solidarity we have put in place, inspired by farm workers’ struggles, also serve to get out of our own containers, the ones that contemporary precarity imposes on our existences.
We have learnt much about anti-containerisation tactics precisely from another crucial cycle of struggles involving migrant workers and containers, this time of the literal sort. Since 2008, logistics workers in different parts of Italy have engaged in multiple strikes, pickets, blockades, and demonstrations that exposed and made evident the importance of this aspect of capitalist value extraction in the present conjuncture, and consequently also the efficacy of struggles in this domain. To block the circulation of commodities has proved as a particularly effective way to hinder the interests of capital and gain some terrain in the struggle for a more just and equitable form of living. And it is with this hopeful and suggestive note, that brings us back to, or better in front of, and opposed to, containers of the literal and the metaphorical kind that we wish to end this paper, and continue the struggle.

Migrant workers’ struggles, their composition and facilitation in Italy

Posted: November 27th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: General, ricerca militante | Comments Off on Migrant workers’ struggles, their composition and facilitation in Italy

During the last decades, the global restructuring of capitalism determined significant changes in the Italian labour market and in the very organisation of labour: on the one hand, the implementation of laws and policies that led to uncontrolled flexibility, diffuse precarity and wild delocalisation. These mechanisms together led to the total de-structuring of an increasingly feminised labour, which is made to pay for productive and reproductive costs. On the other hand, the intensification of migration flows, significantly influenced by global economic factors, led to the introduction of coercive norms. Here, the control of mobility is totally subordinated to the productive system, in a context in which preoccupations with ‘security’ lead to the increasing reliance on forms of criminalisation and arbitrariness. Moreover, the changes that occurred in the organisation of labour and the extraction of surplus from bodies and subjects run parallel to a crisis of representation, of labour organisation and of trajectories of resistance, which pose the question of what forms of struggle can be put in place to face such transformations.

In such a framework, where exploitation and marginalisation are common to all workers, be they autochtonous or migrant, the latter are however subjected to greater structural vulnerability. Migrant workers, especially if from outside the EU, are usually relegated to the least paid and guaranteed jobs (and they are often, and increasingly, employed on an intermittent basis), in those sectors – such as agriculture; the construction business; logistics; domestic, sexual, and care labour – which register the highest levels of unregulated, informal employment. The exploitation of migrant labour functions through measures that add a further layer to the general control of labour mobility, in a system that effectively ties the right of stay to a work contract. The current immigration law, the so called Bossi-Fini Bill (implemented since 2002 and supplemented by the ‘Security Decree’ in 2009), institutes unemployment as a crime, given that the penal code formally punishes irregularity. Such measures make migrant workers more vulnerable and prone to accept any kind of working condition with regards to wages, working hours, social benefits. This compounds with the heavy reliance on unregulated labour that characterises many sectors of the Italian economy, such that even when work permits are obtained, the work contracts subtending to them may be purchased under the table through willing fake employers. These usually charge for their complicity, whilst labour is provided on an informal basis and thus without any guarantees. The lack of recognition of work rights is of course the rule for those activities, such as sexual labour or drug dealing (and, to some extent, street peddling) that are legally not recognised as work and are criminalised by various means. Given this, welfare measures such as unemployment benefits and pensions are often precluded to migrant workers, even if formally ‘regular’: in order to save on tax, fake as well as real contracts only record a minimum of working days, well below the threshold for access to benefits. Of course, the status of being undocumented determines a further level of exploitability. In all cases, political rights of representation are denied to non-citizens.

Furthermore, economic and political mechanisms of subordination and exclusion are compounded by symbolic boundaries, racism, patriarchy and xenophobia being widespread, and by social and cultural barriers. All these contribute to isolate and frighten migrants who in some cases are therefore deprived of the means to even access those rights the are in fact entitled to (such as healthcare and social housing). By virtue of all this, the burden of reproductive costs is all the more dramatically placed on the shoulders of migrant workers, and in particular on women. Since the beginning of the 1990s, women represent the majority of the migrant population in Italy, employed mainly in domestic and care labour, as well as in sex work and in agriculture.1 Women workers are also discriminated in the labour market because of their gender, often earning less than men and being threatened with the loss of their job if pregnant.

Even those migrants who have the right of stay by virtue of their country of origin’s recent entry into the EU (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland) are not spared from forms of exploitation and marginality. This is due not only to symbolic and social discrimination, but also to the fact that they are often employed in seasonal forms of labour organised and heavily controlled from the point of origin of the migration flow, whereby gangmasters exert extreme forms of control on the workers. In many cases, mechanisms of exploitation of migrant labour border on, or fully embody, forms of slavery. The current economic crisis, and the consequent increase of that ‘army of reserve labour’ that decreases labour costs, exacerbate the picture. Of course, the availability of cheap and disposable labour erodes the rights of all workers, regardless of their nationality, and therefore invests Italians too.

However, the structural rift that separates migrants from Italians also extends to trajectories of struggle. In many occasions, migrants’ conditions of precarity and isolation make it harder for them to advance any claims to rights. Or, when such struggles do occur, often they do not entail alliances and solidarity between migrant and Italian workers, and might expose internal divisions among migrants themselves. Such fragmentation and isolation are another instance of power’s control on subjects, exerted through myriad forms.

On the other hand, on several occasions in the last few years migrants have demonstrated that despite their structural isolation they are capable of putting in place tactics of struggle that defy their exclusion. Likewise, several militant groups and civil-society associations have supported their stance. The first strike, self-organised by migrant farm labourers from Masseria Boncuri, Nardò (Apulia) in August 2011, is perhaps the epitome of a process of struggle where migrants themselves, who acknowledge one another beyond national borders, recognise the issue of work as central. The struggle of farm labourers in Boncuri ignited from the ground and was effectively built horizontally by workers. That of the Masseria was a unique context, where a collaborative form of organisation was experimented by two associations that actively involved migrants in daily management. It aimed at combining the provision of adequate housing for seasonal workers (beds, lighting, legal assistance, national health service centre, Italian language school) with the regularisation of illegal labour, though a campaign of sensitisation and information on worker’s fundamental rights (“Ingaggiami Contro il Lavoro Nero”). Underlying the whole housing project was the principle that it should function as an ‘open camp,’ thus going against the normalising logic proper of institutional projects (so-called ‘accoglienza diffusa’) that tie access to possession of valid permits of stay and police entrance and exit. The strike received institutional recognition when a bill was approved that outlawed the figure of gangmasters. However, besides ignoring landowners’ much heavier responsibility and greater power in the exploitation of labour, it re-institutes the possibility for labour to be paid at piece rate.

Besides its controversial outcomes, the Nardò strike marked a shift in the emancipatory process of migrant workers. It represented a positive evolution from the outburst of the Rosarno riots in 2010, where the marginalisation of African workers and episodes of physical and verbal abuse against them led to an understandably violent response, later giving rise to collective political practices in those cities where workers were forcedly deported (e.g. the Rosarno workers assembly in Rome). At another significant site of intensive agricultural production, such as Castelnuovo Scrivia (Piedmont), in the summer of 2012 workers and allies also staged a spontaneous form of protest against their exploitation. Also in 2012, in nearby Saluzzo (Piedmont), migrants and anti-racist activists protested against the lack of housing provision for the large number of seasonal workers in the area.

Since 2008, migrant workers in the logistics sector and self-organised trade unions have also been calling strikes and blocks in areas of northern Italy such as Pioltello and Basiano (Lombardy), Piacenza and Bologna. Forms of collective action by migrants and allies demonstrated how labour exploitation, in agriculture as in other sectors of the production system, are pervasive from the north to the south of the country. The degrees and forms of violence and marginalisation are of course variable, for the most part related to the number of workers, and especially of seasonal labourers, by the distribution and management of property and their relation to laws and institutions. The agricultural sector is perhaps the domain where workers’ exploitation and marginality are more evident, with the creation of full-blown ghettoes. Different experiences of militance on the ground, and the related analytical considerations, therefore, need to be tuned to the specific contexts in which they intervene.

The practices which the network ‘Campagne in lotta’2 built and implemented during the summer of 2012 in the ghetto of Rignano Garganico (Foggia, Apulia) represented an attempt to break the isolation of migrant farm labourers, who in the hope of finding work are forced to rely on the control of gangmasters in situations of social and geographical isolation. Besides male farm labourers and as a consequence of their presence, migrant women also live and work in the ghetto, as prostitutes and providers of other reproductive services (mostly in the restaurants and bars set up in the shacks). The Italian language school, the bike workshop and above all the pirate radio, that were set up and run in collaboration between migrants and activists, created spaces of free discussion and debate on issues related to the conditions of work and of exploitation, in a peculiar context in which pervasive control over migrant workers is a structural feature of the ghetto itself. This militant experience finds its strength in collective and horizontal action, through the application of different practical and analytical skills. It aims at understanding the complexity of the reality on the ground, to be able to act in support of workers’ claims, first and foremost by providing to the workers means of information on the services available on the ground and of awareness-building on work rights. Such tools could facilitate their self-organisation, although in a context such as that of the ghetto this proves extremely difficult because of the isolation it engenders, which is of course instrumental to the exploitation of workers.

Given all this, several possible analytical avenues open up. First of all, when observing and analysing the current work conditions in Italy, and building practices that directly connect with workers themselves, it is immediately apparent how, despite their differences, all productive sectors are permeated by dynamics of exploitation, and how work in general represents the sphere in which capital saves on its production costs. The second point concerns the fact that the total de-structuring of work conditions does not concern migrants alone, but involves (and in some cases with the same intensity) Italians too. It is enough to mention the numerous struggles that currently invest the country, from the workers of steel plant ILVA, that led to the mobilisation of the whole city of Taranto, to the ongoing strike of Sardinian factories and mines of the Sulcis region. Thus, the precarious working conditions, now shared by all workers, should lead to the birth of moments of exchange that aim to build unitary forms of struggle – also given that being a citizen no longer ensures those guarantees that were once taken for granted, as a consequence of the total precarity in which the quasi-totality of workers seems confined.

1According to the latest report compiled by Caritas-Migrantes, women among non-EU citizens amount to 51% of the total, numbering 2,370,000 (Caritas-Migrantes 2012, Dossier Statistico sull’Immigrazione, 22mo Rapporto. Roma: Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS ). Women would represent 41,8% of the total of non-EU workers, and are the large majority (80%) in care and domestic labour (Fondazione Leone Moressa 2012, L’Occupazione Straniera: Esiste un Effetto Sostituzione? La Presenza Straniera nei Settori di Attività e nelle Professioni. Venice: Fondazione Leone Moressa. Available online at http://www.google.it/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&ved=0CDcQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.fondazioneleonemoressa.org%2Fnewsite%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2012%2F02%2FOccupazione-straniera-per-settori-e-professione.pdf&ei=wTfkUN7FEPTV4QSG4YCABQ&usg=AFQjCNGAcbBrEh1_N4OlOjdeokOQsnp8xQ&bvm=bv.1355534169,d.bGE, accessed 2nd January 2012). Of course, statistical data does not take into account unregulated forms of labour.


Ricerca per la composizione, oltre il precariato e l’isolamento

Posted: November 27th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: General, ricerca militante | Comments Off on Ricerca per la composizione, oltre il precariato e l’isolamento

Il Collettivo RicercAzione è nato dall’iniziativa di alcuni aderenti al percorso politico della rete “Campagne in Lotta” – una realtà militante, composta da lavoratori stranieri e italiani, ricercatori, associazioni, collettivi, gruppi d’acquisto e piccoli produttori agricoli. A sua volta, la Rete si è formata dall’intreccio di diverse esperienze di lotta. Di queste, due sono le più significative: da un lato, il percorso rivendicativo su lavoro, permesso di soggiorno e diritto all’abitare, portato avanti dall’Assemblea dei Lavoratori Africani a Roma, creata a seguito della loro deportazione forzata, da parte dello Stato italiano, dopo la rivolta di Rosarno del 2010. Dall’altro lato, la Rete prende le mosse anche dall’esperienza del primo sciopero auto-organizzato dei lavoratori stranieri stagionali, che ebbe luogo a Nardò nell’estate 2011.

Dal 2012, Campagne in Lotta promuove interventi collettivi nei luoghi di raccolta intensiva di frutta e ortaggi (in particolare la Capitanata, in provincia di Foggia; la Piana di Gioia Tauro, provincia di Reggio Calabria; la zona di Saluzzo, provincia di Cuneo; e la zona di Palazzo San Gervasio, provincia di Potenza), dove si impiega prevalentemente manodopera immigrata proveniente dall’africa sub-sahariana e dall’Europa dell’est, in condizioni di sfruttamento estremo. In questi contesti, pratiche come la scuola di italiano, la ciclofficina, l’assistenza legale, una radio pirata e la diffusione di informazioni sui diritti dei lavoratori agricoli (contratti provinciali, indennità di disoccupazione ecc.) vengono portate avanti al fine di rompere l’isolamento dei lavoratori stranieri, nelle campagne e non solo. Isolamento che si manifesta in maniera eclatante nell’espansione costante di baraccopoli, ghetti o agglomerati di abitazioni abbandonate e rioccupate (come nei casi di Foggia, Saluzzo, Boreano, fra gli altri), dove vivono braccianti e spesso anche prostitute; ma che viene riprodotto anche con l’istituzione di tendopoli e campi container da parte di enti pubblici e del cosiddetto terzo settore (come nel caso di Rosarno) o delle organizzazioni datoriali (come è accaduto quest’anno a Saluzzo). È in questi luoghi che si svolgono gli interventi di Campagne in Lotta, per la composizione e auto-organizzazione dei lavoratori, ed il raggiungimento di un’emancipazione sia individuale che collettiva.

D’altra parte, la generale parcellizzazione della forza lavoro, speculare a quella dell’organizzazione del sistema produttivo, rende molto complesso pensare a rivendicazioni collettive ed allargate. Sebbene l’obiettivo della rete sia quello di comporre diverse istanze rivendicative, che riguardano non soltanto i lavoratori migranti impiegati nel settore agricolo ma l’intera filiera agroalimentare e oltre, partire dalla condizione dei braccianti immigrati assume un significato preciso: come gradino più basso e sfruttato di una catena produttiva e riproduttiva, i braccianti stagionali – comunitari ed extra-comunitari –, ed ancor di più le donne, anch’esse immigrate, che ne soddisfano le esigenze riproduttive, sono i soggetti più deboli e ricattabili di un sistema di frammentazione, repressione e controllo che si ripercuote sui lavoratori tutti. Favorire percorsi di informazione, accesso ai servizi ed auto-organizzazione, ma anche di ricerca ed auto-inchiesta in questo ambito significa quindi mirare alla composizione promuovendo il rispetto di diritti minimi ma sistematicamente violati, come primo passo per la formulazione di rivendicazioni più alte e generalizzate. Tuttavia, la pratica politica dei soggetti aderenti alla rete non si basa su un piano precostituito, dove le fasi della lotta sono individuate a priori, ma su un percorso che va definendosi a partire dalla pratica dei soggetti che lo mettono in atto. D’altro canto, lo sfruttamento del lavoro agricolo immigrato, la sua estrema marginalizzazione e precarizzazione appaiono come il laboratorio di sistemi di controllo e gestione del lavoro (dove questo è inteso in senso ampio, in un contesto in cui è sempre meno distinguibile dall’esistenza stessa) basati sull’emergenza e la sospensione del diritto, che vanno estendendosi progressivamente. La loro comprensione, e di pari passo il loro contrasto, appaiono quindi tanto più necessari quanto più essi si prefigurano come forme di controllo in espansione a vari livelli. Infine, occuparsi della produzione agricola significa porre l’accento su risorse fondamentali quali il suolo ed il cibo, dalla cui gestione dipendono molti altri settori – economici e non solo.

In un contesto così complesso, la raccolta di informazioni e l’analisi svolgono, com’è ovvio, un ruolo fondamentale per l’azione politica, come suo motore e allo stesso tempo come strumento – a partire da una lettura critica dei dispositivi di controllo: in primis, le leggi sull’immigrazione come leggi sul lavoro, che di fatto istituiscono il reato di disoccupazione e criminalizzano lo “straniero”, rendendolo più ricattabile e permettendo così l’abbassamento del costo del lavoro tout court. Come molti critici hanno sottolineato, dentro e fuori l’accademia, tali fenomeni si inseriscono in un contesto più ampio di erosione dei diritti minimi e precarizzazione generalizzata, dove, come accennato prima, l’emergenzialità e la sospensione del diritto diventano lo strumento di governo non solo dell’immigrazione, ma del lavoro e dell’esistenza stessa (come dice bene Loic Wacquant quando parla di ‘criminalizzazione dei poveri’). La retorica della “crisi” illustra in maniera esemplare questa tendenza, così come l’endemica corruzione e la capillare presenza della cosiddetta criminalità organizzata, che gestisce parti significative della produzione e distribuzione dei prodotti alimentari, tra gli altri. Va poi sottolineato come tali strumenti di controllo agiscano a livello soggettivo e quindi anche, e soprattutto, affettivo – individuando quindi in questi aspetti uno dei nodi centrali dell’agire militante, per la produzione di contro-soggettività in un’ottica compositiva.

Accanto però all’acquisizione ed elaborazione critica di analisi per così dire sistemiche, il percorso di ricerca che caratterizza la rete ed il collettivo ricercAzione si propone anche di stimolare la conoscenza di specifici territori, modalità produttive e di gestione del lavoro, attraverso pratiche che potrebbero definirsi trans- o extra-disciplinari: fra queste, la mappatura degli insediamenti spontanei di lavoratori; la ricostruzione delle filiere agricole che dai campi portano alle aziende di trasformazione e poi ai magazzini, per arrivare infine ai supermercati; il monitoraggio delle innumerevoli tipologie di esclusione o ‘inclusione differenziale’ (termine proposto da Sandro Mezzadra e Brett Neilson) dei lavoratori stranieri, che si articolano nelle diverse fattispecie dei permessi di soggiorno (o nella loro assenza), ma anche nella miriade di irregolarità ed eccezionalità burocratiche che investono questioni come la residenza, il titolo di viaggio, l’accesso ai servizi sanitari – per non parlare delle questioni riguardanti il lavoro, la presenza o, nella maggior parte dei casi, l’assenza di contratti, peraltro variegati nelle loro tipologie; la registrazione degli stessi; o il versamento da parte dei datori di lavoro dei contributi previdenziali. Evidentemente, tali percorsi di conoscenza hanno come obiettivo quello di fornire strumenti utili al contrasto dei dispositivi di controllo e sfruttamento.

La ricerca è quindi organica alle pratiche politiche della rete, ed allo stesso tempo essa è possibile solo partendo da un agire pratico e collettivo, sebbene non univoco né privo di conflittualità interne. La ricerca è perciò concepita come una produzione di sapere che si discosta, almeno in parte, da quella accademica, essendo appunto una produzione collettiva, che mette in rete e compone diverse competenze e prospettive, a volte anche in contrasto tra loro, decostruendo quelle gerarchie che attribuiscono alla figura dell’intellettuale una voce privilegiata nell’analisi critica dell’esistente. Si tratta di una produzione di saperi schierata ma non ideologica, aperta ad una continua riformulazione e contaminazione a partire dall’esperienza, capace di contribuire alla costruzione di strumenti che non siano privatizzati o comunque appannaggio di pochi (in una dimensione liquida” e pubblica del sapere), ma che soprattutto siano riproducibili e rimodulabili altrove. La riproducibilità delle pratiche e la loro modificazione a seconda dei contesti in cui si sviluppano alimentano e stimolano costantemente il cambiamento.

Il termine “ricerca” in questo contesto assume quindi una doppia accezione: da un lato, un’analisi critica dell’esistente, a partire da un’inchiesta sul campo, con le caratteristiche sopra elencate. Dall’altro, per ricerca si intende qui una sperimentazione pratica di strumenti di lotta ma anche di forme alternative di esistenza collettiva. Il Colectivo Situaciones ha fissato efficacemente questo doppio binario definendo il primo aspetto come ‘ricerca militante’ (definita come l’invenzione di “nuove forme di pensiero e produzione di concetti che rifiutino i processi accademici, rompendo con l’immagine di un oggetto da analizzare e mettendo al centro l’esperienza soggettiva”) ed il secondo come ‘militanza di ricerca’ (che significa “creare modalità di militanza che sfuggono alle certezze politiche stabilite a priori ed abbracciano la politica come ricerca”). Nei suoi interventi, della durata sempre superiore ad un mese, la rete si affida al lavoro volontario di chiunque sia interessato a questa esperienza politica, in collaborazione con le realtà territoriali che aderiscono al percorso. Si tratta di un processo che investe le soggettività di tutti i partecipanti nel loro complesso: un’esperienza di vita e lavoro in comune, in cui le idee e le pratiche sono in continua discussione ed evoluzione proprio in virtù di questa forma di collettivo, ed in cui gli aspetti ludici ed affettivi si combinano e diventano parte integrante di quelli lavorativi e strategici. Il motore dell’azione sono il desiderio ed il piacere, contro un’ottica lavorista ed incentrata sul concetto di dovere. Ovviamente, all’interno di questi percorsi il conflitto e la contraddizione occupano uno spazio significativo, generando momenti di tensione e difficoltà ma in generale, a posteriori, produttivi per il lavoro comune. Nel corso dell’ultimo anno, la rete ha aggregato non soltanto militanti italiani solidali alla causa dei lavoratori agricoli migranti, ma i lavoratori stessi, che in alcuni casi sono diventati anche loro volontari ed hanno condiviso l’esperienza del collettivo. Com’è ovvio, questo ha rappresentato un notevole valore aggiunto nel lavoro di Campagne in Lotta, scardinando definitivamente ogni distinzione e potenziale gerarchia tra ‘italiani’ e ‘stranieri’ e favorendo una produttiva messa in discussione di concetti e pratiche politiche a partire da una prospettiva parzialmente ‘altra’ e da una volontà di contaminazione reciproca. La militanza di ricerca, così come la ricerca militante, sono perciò anche forme attive di contro-pedagogia, in cui non esiste gerarchia di saperi ma in cui tutti sono ugualmente insegnanti e studenti. Così, sebbene durante gli interventi della rete si portino avanti corsi di italiano come potenziale strumento di emancipazione per i lavoratori (in cui si insegna la lingua attraverso esempi che riguardano il lavoro, la casa, i documenti, fra gli altri), si cerca di instaurare anche una pratica di scambio linguistico, in cui ognuno insegna la propria lingua. Ugualmente, durante l’ultimo intervento in Capitanata si è sperimentata la pratica del teatro dell’oppresso come forma pedagogica creativa ed auto-diretta per individuare percorsi possibili di emancipazione, in cui tutti i partecipanti sono egualmente coinvolti.

In generale, si tratta dunque di una pratica di costante decostruzione, in un’ottica contro-individualista del sapere e della conoscenza che sola rende possibile la costruzione di una collettività politica in grado di agire in un’ottica trasformativa, provando a scardinare il fenomeno partendo dal fenomeno stesso e vivendone appieno le contraddizioni. Questa decostruzione, che apre possibilità di costruzione di contro-soggettività è intrinsecamente legata alla decostruzione dei dispositivi di controllo e sfruttamento.

Per essere tale, quindi, la ricerca militante deve necessariamente nutrirsi e nutrire la collettività, poiché solo e soltanto da questo margine, complesso e contraddittorio, è possibile creare le condizioni affinché sia possibile il conflitto. È la messa a fuoco delle contraddizioni sociali a permettere uno sviluppo di conflitti che possano andare al di là del riot improvviso, che nella maggior parte dei casi viene soffocato duramente dalla macchina repressiva, e che spesso annulla la possibilità di una ricomposizione reale della forza lavoro. La ricercAzione è quindi anche un contro-dispositivo, in quanto funzionale alla costruzione di un percorso politico altro, che si dispieghi nell’attuazione del percorso stesso. In questo senso, in una prospettiva di trasformazione dell’esistente, l’atto della ricerca individuale e soprattutto svincolata dalla partecipazione all’azione concreta ne delegittima il fine, asservendola a logiche di riproduzione capitalistiche e alle gerarchie istituzionali della conoscenza.

Chi sono quindi i ricercatori in un contesto militante? Siamo tutti ugualmente militanti e ricercatori! Non vi dovrebbe dunque essere una reale separazione tra ricerca e militanza così come non dovrebbe esservi separazione tra l’oggetto e il soggetto della ricerca e della lotta. Attraverso processi decostruttivi del sapere legati alla pratica politica, la ricerca ottiene il proprio superamento, così come il soggetto, agendo collettivamente e restituendo le proprie azioni alla trasformazione dell’esistente, decostruisce se stesso in quanto individuo. La ricerca-azione non trova mai il suo esaurimento in un solo contesto. Al contrario rimanda alla propria capacità epidemica di riprodursi potenzialmente in qualsiasi altro luogo, assumendo forme diverse, creando linguaggi e forme di lotta inediti.

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.