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Soldier in Mondragone, southern Italy, on June 30.
Soldier in Mondragone, southern Italy, on June 30.
Mattia Feltri

Even as the total number of cases of COVID-19 decreased In Italy, an outbreak flared up in the southern province of Caserta among migrant agricultural laborers. Writing in the Italian daily La Stampa, Mattia Feltri recounts how, once again, the pandemic is bringing long-simmering tensions, economic inequity and social injustice to the surface.

Almost all of the agricultural laborers of Mondragone, in the southern Italian province of Caserta come from Novi Zagora, Bulgaria. They were lured to Italy by human traffickers, thinking they would make decent money here. They stay in large, run-down tower blocks formerly owned by Cirio, the Italian multinational known for its canned vegetables and sauces. They come down from their apartments at 4:30 a.m. to be loaded into trucks and taken to fields owned by Italian farmers, where they pick green beans.

Their pay ranges between 2 and 4 euros per hour. Or rather, the men's pay does: Women make less, between 1 and 2 euros per hour. Since they can't leave the kids home alone, sometimes they take them along for the day. But the children are not strong and can't work long hours, so the pay goes down to 0.50 to 0.75 euros an hour.

The Bulgarians go out anyway because if they don't work, they can't eat.

The normal workday lasts seven or eight hours, but if the harvest is abundant, it can reach 12 hours. The laborers make a bit more money and are happy. Recruiters pay them in the evening. On a good day, husband and wife can make 50 euros, from which the recruiters subtract a cut from themselves, to cover transport fees and rent.

Unions have been denouncing this exploitation — or slavery — for a long time, and because they can't seem to change the situation, they wait outside the tower blocks in the morning, at least to hand out water bottles and caps to protect the laborers from the scorching sun.

And now, a coronavirus cluster has broken out in the apartments where they live: People can't go in or out at least until July 7. But the Bulgarians go out anyway because if they don't work, they can't eat. The other Mondragone residents protested against it, and a few incidents of violence flared. An angry crowd cordoned off the perimeter. Chairs were thrown from a balcony, and rocks flung the other way, smashing windows. So the Italian government decided to send in the army, committed as always to enforcing the law.

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