Abdullah Mohammed, a 47-year-old Sudanese laborer, died in the scorching July sun while picking tomatoes in the Salento countryside between Nardò and Avetrana, working without a legal contract and without any protection for his health. Now, in the trial regarding his death, the Lecce Court of Assizes has sentenced both the farmer who exploited him, Giuseppe Mariano, and Mohamed Elsalih, a compatriot of the victim who was the overseer running the ring of illegal laborers who were used in the fields, to 14.5 years in prison each. They were found guilty on the charges of enslavement and negligent homicide brought by Salento prosecutors.
The end of the first instance trial on one of the many cases of exploitation of migrant workers, often to extreme consequences, came just before the presentation of the 6th Report on Agricultural Mafia and Illegal Employment, compiled by the FLAI CGIL union’s Placido Rizzotto Observatory, scheduled for Tuesday at Frentani in Rome. The report highlights a number of issues, thanks to the use of ISTAT data, such as the fact that last year as many as 230,000 people were employed illegally in the agricultural sector, more than a quarter of the total number of people employed in the sector, with a very substantial proportion of “non-resident foreigners.”
Abdullah Mohammed was one of them, married and the father of two children. On July 20, 2015, on a day when temperatures neared 40°C (104°F) and should have dissuaded anyone from working in the fields, he was sent to his death without the slightest protection. Moreover, he was ill, but no one knew what was wrong with him because he had never undergone a medical check-up, as medical examiner Alberto Tortorella determined. The specialist told the judges during the trial that the autopsy had shown that Abdullah Mohammed had a high fever that day caused by viral pneumonia.
In her indictment, prosecutor Francesca Miglietta accused the two defendants of forcing the laborers to work in conditions of absolute exploitation and subjection. The victim, like the other migrants, was working more than 10 hours a day in the fields under the scorching sun and in arduous and inhumane conditions, without breaks or days of rest, for a salary that was below €50. Obviously, everything was off the books. The judges’ ruling went beyond the prosecutor’s requests in terms of the weight of the sentences, and also ordered damages to be paid in favor of the 47-year-old’s widow and other civil parties, including the Lecce CGIL and the FLAI CGIL of Brindisi.
Finally, the court ordered the trial documentation to be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office concerning statements made by some workers cited as witnesses for the defense, which were deemed to have offered a blatantly false reconstruction of events, as well as a litmus test of a persistent toxic situation in the agricultural sector, where illegal employment and exploitation remain widespread.
The Meloni government seems to be going in a very different direction: it has announced that with the next budget adjustment it intends to “introduce” the use of vouchers as payment in the agricultural sector, leading to an immediate reaction from Giovanni Mininni, the secretary general of FLAI: “First of all, we would like to point out that the so-called vouchers are already provided for agricultural workers and have been well regulated for years, in order to give guarantees both to businesses and to workers. Furthermore, we believe that raising thresholds or eliminating protections would not simplify the bureaucratic procedures which they say they’re aiming at, but, as we have already seen in the past, it would mean giving more room to illegal employers and those who want to exploit workers.”