Blood on the Melons

Dave Kellaway reports from Italy that a farm machine mutilated Satnam Singh, an undocumented Sikh farmworker earning just 4 euros an hour. His boss, Antonello Lovato, then transported Satnam and his wife back to their home, where Satnam tragically bled to death. The report concludes with a translated statement from the Rifondazione Comunista and Sinistra Anticapitalista branches in Aprilia.

 

Satnam’s boss thoughtfully put his severed arm in a fruit box but never considered taking him to a hospital. Lovato’s main concern was to get him off his property – a crime scene of social murder. Satnam’s arm was severed, his legs were smashed, and he had a head injury. He took two days to die in hospital.

Satnam Singh was in his early 30s and had come to Italy from the Punjab three years earlier. Like twelve thousand fellow Sikhs, he worked in the intensive agri-business on the plains of Latina, a province between Naples and Rome. Many undocumented workers come through a gangmaster system, where an agency recruits and arranges passage to the fields. Often this involves the worker incurring a debt with the gangmaster. Sometimes the same agency or the employer will set up very basic accommodation, again for a price.

“Lovato’s main concern was to get him off his property – a crime scene of social murder.”

Without a proper contract and no residence card, these workers are at the mercy of this exploitative system. Organised criminal gangs like the Camorra in the Caserta area near Naples control much of this. Latina has a long right-wing, even fascist tradition. The same bosses who echo the post-fascist government’s racist ideology about migrants replacing the Italian native population and destroying its identity are happy to use this quasi-slave setup. Workers toil under a torrid sun outside or in the suffocating heat of the miles of plastic polytunnels for four or five euros an hour, or less if the bosses can get away with it.

Of course, as is usually the case in Italy, a law passed in 2016 is supposed to have outlawed the caporalato (gangmaster system), but it still persists. From 2016 to 2018, there had even been a judicial inquiry into this province’s rural employment practices, which implicated Singh’s boss, Lovato. Italy even has a national quasi-police force, the Guardia di Finanza, that could be usefully employed in a serious battle against the caporalato.

Local politicians and organised crime combine so that nothing really changes, and there are never many resources given over to inspectors and regulation. Coldiretti, the federation of bosses in the agricultural sector, has huge institutional influence but has done little to stamp it out. Official estimates in 2018 suggest 25% of agricultural workers are exploited in this way. The big supermarket chains like Conad or Selex distribute the fruit and vegetables picked for 4 euros an hour and could refuse to take produce from farms without properly contracted workers.

Another way bosses can exploit workers, particularly migrants, is to employ them at starvation wages for as many weeks as it takes to qualify for unemployment pay, then fire and later rehire them at even cheaper rates as the state benefit covers part of the wage. The bosses actively organise this process, but the beauty of it from their point of view is that if there is ever an inspection, it is the workers defrauding benefits who are prosecuted, not the bosses (who plead ignorance). I have seen this system operate in the tourist and hospitality sector in the South with ‘native’ Italian workers, particularly youth.

Trade unions at a national level will denounce the horrors of caporalato after the event. The CGIL – the biggest trade union confederation, was organising a campaign in the area at the time of Singh’s death. Their efforts aim to get proper contracts for agri-workers. It is good that there are some paid organisers in the field to protect these workers, but the union leaders hesitate to link this struggle to an overall effort to regain what has been lost on a national level over the last decades. If agricultural workers and migrants could join the more organised sectors, real progress could be made. Politicians too are not rushing to clean up a system where literally the blood and sweat of migrant workers keep the price of fruit and vegetables from increasing further. Fruit and vegetables are also exported and bring in valuable foreign exchange.

Almost immediately, Satnam’s death caused a storm in both houses of parliament. It seems you have to die horribly for the great and the good to take any notice of a brutal system rife in Italian agriculture. On Saturday the 22nd, a demonstration was organised by the trade unions supported by the left-of-centre parties. Mattarella, the president, made a speech denouncing the situation. Elly Schlein, leader of the biggest social liberal left-of-centre party, the PD (Democrat Party), spoke quite left:

“Singh did not die in an industrial accident, he was killed by exploitation, he was killed by the gangmasters, by the inhuman treatment of the person who dumped him with his arm torn off by a machine at his house without taking him to hospital.”

She also correctly linked the incident to what she says are the iniquitous Bossi/Fini laws on migration. But her party only puts forward a slightly more moderate anti-migrant policy. One of its ministers, Minnucci, was responsible for outsourcing the migrant ‘problem’ to Tunisia.

Demonstrators booed the local far-right Brothers of Italy politician, and another demonstration is organised for tomorrow, Tuesday 25th June. Antonello Lovato is under investigation for manslaughter and other employment offences. His father implied after the event that Satnam was more or less to blame because he made a mistake with the machine that rolls out the plastic that covers the poly tunnels.

Screen grab of workers in a field and insert a picture of Satnam Singh

Satnam’s needless death shows the brutality of a worldwide system of exploitation and a global workforce. Making our fellow workers ‘illegal’ by arbitrary border controls allows some bosses to make super profits and provides an ideological basis for pitting worker against worker. Capital knows no border controls, nor does British imperialism either today or in the past. We reject the pound-shop nationalism of Keir Starmer with the butcher’s apron festooned on official Labour election material. We have more in common with Satnam Singh than any Jim Ratcliffe or John Caudwell.

“Satnam’s needless death shows the brutality of a worldwide system of exploitation and a global workforce.”

During his short 31 years of life, Satnam toiled long hours to produce profits for Italian agribusiness. His dream was to save enough to go back to a better life in the Punjab. The Italian state never really noticed him, but in death, the region is going to pay his funeral costs. Satnam’s wife commented:

“Now what am I supposed to do? Yours is not a good country.”

“We have more in common with Satnam Singh than any Jim Ratcliffe or John Caudwell.”


Satnam Singh’s murder in the name of profit

Published on 21 June 2024

Joint communiqué by Rifondazione Comunista and Sinistra Anticapitalista branches in Aprilia.

The death of Satnam Singh after two days of agony, following the very serious accident with a piece of farm machinery that severed his arm, is not just a tragic accident. People are responsible for it.  Starting, of course, with those who not only failed to guarantee the minimum safety in his workplace, but actively and arrogantly denied him the urgent help he needed, preventing him from calling for help and finally dumping him in the street like a sack of illegal rubbish, thus getting rid of the problem.

However, the responsibilities do not only stop with the criminals directly involved in this terrible affair. But also involve the institutions that constantly turn away, except for expressing hypocritical condolences. As well as all those political forces that implement and support anti-immigrant and anti-worker policies, the Meloni government is the clearest example of that..

In the Pontine countryside there is a notorious system of racist and slave like exploitation in which thousands of people are exploited. They work without any rights and without any legal protection, and many times are mistreated even for asking for the paltry payment due that the bosses often withhold.

It is no secret to anyone, and every now and then some striking cases reach the local news. However instead of extending protection for workers, governments and administrations get indignant and outraged momentarily and then continue to protect the interests of the bosses and their profits, consciously denying the rights, health and safety of those who work.

In fact, the constant deaths at work occur because the bosses put their profit before people’s lives, considering the safety and health of workers only as a costly hindrance to their profits.

In the first four months of 2024, there were already almost 200,000 reported work-related accidents, 268 of which were fatal.

To put an end to this carnage it is necessary to prioritise the rights and protections of those who work, repealing all those laws that, in recent decades, the various centre-right, centre-left and technical governments have enacted to increase corporate profits and guarantee the interests of the bosses. At the same time these governments implement anti migrant policies and make inhuman and racist propaganda on immigration.

A worker without a residence permit is easily blackmailed and subject to gangmasters and criminal organisations. If you are a worker, as well as exploitation and blackmail in the workplace, you experience harassment and sexual violence, as investigations and testimonies over the years have shown.

As militants of Sinistra Anticapitalista Aprilia and Rifondazione Comunista Aprilia, we want to express our full solidarity and sympathy to Satnam’s family, to the farm workers forced to work in inhuman conditions, and to the entire Indian community.

We also support the initiatives they will take to denounce these atrocities and demand their rights, starting with the day of struggle and the call for a general strike on 25 June


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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