Aboubakahr wears a pair of work boots, muddy and ruined by dirt, and takes the road which leads him to his battlefield today. But this time is different, the earth below his feet is no more the wild and slippery one of the tomato fields, whereas the soft and clean pavement of the Italian Parliament. Aboubakahr Soumahoro, 42 years old, Ivorian origins, has been elected with the Greens- Italian left Alliance inside the Centre-left coalition during the last parliamentary elections in Italy, won this September by the far right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia. Soumahoro is no newcomer to politics: since his arrival in Italy in 1998, aged 19, he embraced the claims of undocumented migrants who sought consideration from the government, asking for rights, medical care and regularization. While working to survive as bricklayer, worker, petrol station attendant and farmworker, he attended and graduated at the Faculty of Sociology in Naples and Turin, where he laid the foundations for a deeper political and social commitment to the fight of those he defines as “invisibles”.
The invisibles on the Italian territory are so many that the State's blindness towards them may seem paradoxical. Among those who live in precarious conditions, namely riders for food companies’ delivery services, homeless people, irregular migrants, exploited workers, Soumahoro’s efforts focused especially on those who are subjected to the so-called “modern slavery”, farmworkers in the seasonal harvesting of fruit and vegetables in southern Italy. This phenomenon, often controlled by organized crime and Mafia associations, is known as “caporalato”, from the word “caporali” used to indicate the illegal role of the intermediators between the owner of the fields and the exploited employers.
Italy counts more than 200,000 migrant working in its fields, the majority of those spent 14 or 15 hours per day harvesting tomatoes destined for large retailers, which will sell them to supermarkets all around the country through a Dutch auction system.
Italy is the second largest producer of tomatoes in the world, after the USA and before China, producing more than 50 million quintals, of which more than a third is cultivated in the area of the 'Tavoliere delle Puglie” in Southern Italy. Every kilo of tomatoes taken for processing does not yield more than 6-7 cents to the owner, and the caporali continue to keep at least 50-60 cents (out of 3.5 euro) for each 'caisson' filled.
Most of the farmworkers come from African countries, even though since the early 2000s many Polish seasonal workers faced the same extreme conditions and some of them disappeared without ever being traced, despite the opening of a criminal trial against a transnational association of caporali. Besides exploitation, and living conditions of these people with no other choice but sleeping in overcrowded shacks without adequate sanitary conditions or private spaces, what should worry the most is the absence of a better perspective for the future, as the Italian legislation on migration does not provide opportunity to find a regular job for those who do not own a valid residence permit. A permit that can be obtained, according to Bossi-Fini law in force since 2022, only presenting a legal employment contract, thus generating a short circuit from which there is little hope of getting out.
Moreover, it is not hard to guess that, during the worst months of pandemic, despite being an extremely necessary workforce for the country, migrants employed in the camps did not receive any kind of health protection or support, being dangerously exposed to the virus and unable to isolate themselves.
A beacon of hope seemed to light up when Teresa Bellanova, a former farmworker who had experienced the scandal of caporalato on her own skin, was appointed Minister of Agriculture in 2020, instituting an amnesty for migrants employed in the fields. But the amnesty was far from being a success, managing to regularize only 38 thousand people out of more than 200 thousand requests, due to bureaucratic slowness and miscommunication.
Aboubakahr's humanity in revolt
As a first action in support of the invisibles, Aboubakahr is among the founders of CISPM, the International Coalition of Sans-Papiers, Migrants and Refugees, which organized in 2012 a march of undocumented migrants crossing six European countries, aimed at claiming for free movement across Europe for people like them.
He started his career in the trade union sector working for the Agricultural Commission of the USB, the Base Trade Union in Italy; after the murderer in the fields of one of his colleagues, Soumaila Sacko, in 2018, he started to put pressure on Italian institutions to obtain the creation of an operational platform on caporalato. Despite of being officially institutionalized in September 2019, with the cooperation of the Italian Ministry of Employment and Social Policies, Internal Affairs and Agricultural Policies, and other actors, so far, the platform has not provided any relevant result in terms of improving farmworkers conditions.
When the government of Giuseppe Conte convened, in 2020, the Stati Generali dell'Economia (States General of the Economy) with the aim of bringing together all the major entrepreneurs and actors of the Italian economy to discuss the future of the country hit by the pandemic crisis, Aboubakahr responded with an invitation to all the marginalized from the society to participate in the Stati Popolari degli Invisibili (Popular States of the Invisibles). In this way, the Ivorian trade unionist wanted to respond provocatively to the exclusion from the governmental event of all those subjects who were first impacted - negatively - by economic policies, and who were never considered in the definition phase of those policies. The economy as the prerogative of the entrepreneurs, of those who were and still remain at the top of the social pyramid, and thus as a continuous repetition, in an endless circle, of their interests and ambitions, ignoring the demands of the most unheeded workers.
Out of the 'People's States' came a kind of manifesto of the invisibles composed of five points:
First of all, the creation of a national plan for the labor emergency, especially given the impact of the pandemic; a social housing plan to deal with the housing emergency. At the center, of course, a reform of the food chain based on a so-called 'food licence', a certification to recognize food that is produced without exploitation. Closely linked to all this is the demand to abolish the Salvini’s decrees, called Security decrees, which have prevented many migrants fleeing war or poverty from entering Italian ports, and the aforementioned Bossi-Fini law. Next, the citizenship law must be reformed, both for those born and those raised in Italy, and a 'residence permit for medical emergencies' convertible into a work permit must be guaranteed. In the fifth point, they talk about environmental justice reform and of putting in place policies to remove obstacles to inequality.
Although the initiative obtained a great echo on newspapers and media, it is hard to say that the Italian government really committed to fulfill those goals, as the majority of the objectives defined by Soumahoro are still far from being realized.
One month later, he left, not without controversy from old colleagues, the USB to found the association of social promotion “Lega Braccianti” (Farmworkers League) and launched in the small town of Borgo Mezzanone, the most infamous of the settlements where thousands of migrants live like in a ghetto in makeshift slums, the first House of rights and dignity as a “ a place for communion and for building a new consciousness for freedom and justice” in order to “seek the path of their own development, their own defence, and greater economic and spiritual well-being”.
Soumahoro has recounted his vision of society and the economy in a book, Humanity in revolt, in which it is the very system to which the world refers that is overturned: it is not enough to fight for the overcoming of inequalities if this does not entail a profound change in the structures on which they are based, meaning the fight for an alternative to an economic model based exclusively on profit and GDP. In his own words, “the current paradigm is a threat to our humanity. Our collective task is to develop an alternative model based on social and environmental justice”.
From the field to politics: bringing mud into parliament
It is precisely to develop this alternative model, or at least to make it less of a utopia and more of a possibility, that the trade unionist decided to go knocking on the door of politics. And he did so by running in the last elections and winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, a seat that, we can be sure, will not remain untouched but will be soiled with the mud of those fields that many of his colleagues sitting there do not want to look at.
It will be interesting to see how such demands will be received by a government that has made “food sovereignty” such a priority that it has created a dedicated ministry: will the right-wing's concern for 100% Italian food go so far as to touch on the living conditions of those who allow these precious national products to arrive on our tables?