A Day in Mohammad’s Life in Sicily

The racial capitalism behind Italy’s delicious olives

A Day in Mohammad’s Life in Sicily
Olive groves in the area of Agira, Sicily, Italy/DeAgostini/Getty Images

It’s 6 a.m. — daylight has not yet broken. On Via Garibaldi, the main street in Campobello (“Beautiful Fields”), seasonal workers mill outside shops and cafés, waiting to be transported to the fields. With around 5,000 olive growers who produce its world-famous Nocellara del Belice olives, this town in the west of Sicily has always been an important stop in the seasonal labor cycle. Each autumn, thousands of migrant workers, the majority of them sub-Saharan Africans, come to join the harvest. Mohammad, a Gambian, is one of them.

The team for today’s job consists of one Romanian, two Tunisians, and two other Gambians. Their employer’s family is also helping out. The farmer’s grandson Alessandro is the supervisor, and Alessandro’s nephew drives the workers to the farm. Half an hour passes before two vans are loaded, and they set out down country lanes as the sun begins to rise. Mohammad sits at the back, holding the door open to let in the fresh air. Shafts of sunlight stream through as he watches the town and the bumpy lane recede behind them.

Mohammad has been in Campobello for seven harvests and knows the region intimately. He was 35 when he left Brikama Ba in central Gambia for Libya, having failed to sustain a reasonable standard of living for his family selling couscous and dried food. When he left, his 8-year-old son was being looked after by his mother and two sisters. It was only when Mohammad reached Tripoli that he was confronted with a new reality. He couldn’t take his safety for granted anymore, and there was no reprieve from fear. He eventually planned an escape from Libya, but when he got on the boat, he had no idea where he would land. He often has flashbacks of the sea journey, one of the few episodes in his life that brings tears to his eyes. He believes it’s destiny that brought him to Italy.

The workers arrive in the vast fields 20 minutes later. They choose their line of olive trees, put their plastic harvesting boxes around their necks, and start picking. The large green olives are fresh and plump, ready to be picked. Mohammad starts with olives at the lowest level — those hanging low from the trees on the outside. The olives tumble into the plastic box with a thump. Three loaded boxes amount to one crate. Soon Mohammad’s box is full and pressing heavily on his chest. He is used to it — and to the red strap marks that appear on his neck by the end of the day.

The team works from one tree to the next in a straight line, each looking after their line for the day. The quantity and quality of the trees varies. Mohammad gets frustrated with the less healthy trees, as it obviously means fewer olives and less income. He is, however, always working his hardest and is faster than most. He is six trees down the line within a couple of hours.

By 10 a.m. the temperature has risen to 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit). Mohammad has worked nonstop for four hours, without a sip of water or a toilet break — not that there are any toilets around.

Alessandro is in charge of quality control. When workers load their boxes of olives into the crates, he comes and separates them into different batches: large green olives for use as food (to be soaked in water and salt for three months); black and other non-green olives also for food (pickled in salt for two months); and small green ones for producing oil.

Crates of olives, Campobello/Photo courtesy of author/New Lines

The Romanian and Tunisian men break first for lunch. Mohammad descends the ladder, turns over an empty crate, and sits on it under the shade of a tree. He tips tuna from a tin onto a plate and has it with a baguette. He is the only one with a plate. He eats alone — he needs the peace. He can’t afford to spend all his hour-long, unpaid lunch break eating or resting. As the job is piecework, the longer you rest, the less you earn. He finishes his lunch in 10 minutes, smokes a roll-up, and resumes work.

The afternoon sun does not get any less fierce, and Mohammad works without a break. Alessandro’s father comes and helps with sorting the crops, which creates pressure to speed up. Mohammad is still ahead of others. He sees the Romanian worker on a ladder five trees behind him. His earnings will be no more than €40 ($47) for the day.

At 4 p.m., Alessandro counts the crates. Mohammad has filled up 23, earning him €69 ($81), or €3 ($4) per crate. Soon, buyers from Naples and elsewhere will come to purchase the olives, paying €37.50 ($44) per crate. In the presence of his employer, Mohammad is content with the day’s earnings. It was the best he could do given that the trees in his row were not all good today. But deep down, Mohammad knows that he is being exploited. His wage is only 8% of his employer’s earnings.

Farmers make huge profits from the harvest. Their profits are sufficient to keep them and their families going for the whole year. Mohammad thinks of his own family back in Gambia, his mother and siblings who wait for his support each month — the support that will keep him working and working.

Around half the workforce employed in Italian agriculture — close to half a million — are migrant workers. They come from around the world: southeast Europe, Tunisia and Morocco, Bangladesh, and sub-Saharan Africa. Among the 430,000 agricultural workers in Italy who are irregularly employed (i.e., without contracts), 80% are migrants. The exploitation is stratified: sub-Saharan Africans — most of whom have been through the asylum system and are nicknamed the “CAS people,” after the Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Extraordinary Reception Center) — are at the bottom of the hierarchy regarding terms and conditions. The off-season pay rate among sub-Saharan African workers is €15-€20 ($18-$24) per day, the lowest among agricultural workers.

The labor stratification creates a situation where workers from different countries and with different migratory statuses have to compete with one another, making it doubly difficult to organize collective action against their employers.

The stratification benefits the caporali (labor contractors, gangmasters) who recruit the workers (some for mafia farmers, such as in Sicily and Calabria), organize their transport (and sometimes accommodation), and deduct a broker’s fee and transportation costs from their meager pay. Each manages 3,000 to 4,000 farm workers, earning €10-€15 ($12-$18) a day per worker under their management. Some caporali organize smaller teams of workers, such as those recruiting Tunisians for Mohammad’s employer. Meanwhile, migrant workers are usually paid 50% less than the agricultural minimum wage of €7.13 ($8.40) agreed by industry and normally work 8 to 12 hours a shift, despite legal working hours of six and a half hours a day. Regardless, the caporali system is alive and well because it perfectly serves retailers’ requirements of “just in time” production, with its seasonality and need for flexibility (migrant workers’ ability to move from one harvest to the next).

The exploitation of sub-Saharan African workers is not only about individual caporali but the system as a whole, which keeps them in a subordinate place to serve the interests of multinational corporations and the political elite. This has been most crudely demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when politicians appeased anxious farmers who faced a labor shortage and needed African workers with a regularization scheme that allowed them to hire workers without contracts.

The workers are also exploited through the profit-making and corrupt asylum system, institutional racism, and segregation. The asylum reception system has formed a symbiotic relationship with the underground world of migrant labor — the former supplies the latter, the latter feeds back into the former. In most cases, asylum reception camps are in fact labor reservoirs for agriculture.

Segregation in 21st century Italy is practiced through the allocation of space according to ethnicity. Across the country, provincial towns are inhabited by white Italians while African workers are kept out and agrarianized. Such segregation drives migrants to live in desperate and often dangerous conditions. In Campobello, like elsewhere, African workers live in rural ghettos, that is, makeshift encampments and disused barns outside of town. No electricity, no water, no basic facilities, no dignity.

Migrant workers have had to develop coping strategies to deal with their appalling conditions. In many cases, segregation can kill them. In the tent city near Rosarno, Calabria, which is the constituency of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing Lega party, many lives were lost in fires and accidents resulting from unsafe living conditions.

One of African workers’ encampments, on the outskirts of Campobello, west Sicily/Photo courtesy of author/New Lines

Mohammad is lucky. He lives inside the farmer’s compound. This is something that almost never happens to Africans — and is certainly unheard of in Campobello. The Gambians see him as someone who has “made it” — a “model worker” who has won the trust of the white man and “earned” proper housing in return.

Only those who visit Mohammad know that he doesn’t actually live in the house but in the small garage next door. This arrangement is convenient for the farmer but not so much for Mohammad. Mohammad must pay a monthly rent of €75 ($88) for the privilege of sleeping in his boss’ garage, where the door remains unlocked at all times to allow the boss easy access. To the farmer, Mohammad is merely a farming tool, parked alongside a tractor, and this is not lost on Mohammad.

Mohammad’s case is exceptional since he’s seen as a “good Black worker.” But, like all sub-Saharan Africans, he is seen as a Black worker, nonetheless. The implications of this have always been clear to him. Africans are barred from most employment except farming, and white Italians don’t want them living in their midst. African workers’ ghettoization has always been accompanied by harsh measures. Encampments built by workers are vulnerable to demolition, while workers living in abandoned barns and farmhouses risk eviction. In either scenario, workers are confronted with homelessness, and they are trapped in a cycle of abandonment and criminalization by the state. NGOs and civil society groups have been complicit in this through their silence. Workers’ unions are helpless in front of the bulldozers. Migrant workers are on their own.

Mohammad knows that by virtue of his good example, he alone can’t beat a system that is set against the Black man. Local farmers see him as a “model worker,” but that hasn’t made them any more willing to see him as a fellow resident. He does not want to feel like a commodity to be used when needed and discarded when not. He needs them to recognize that he is just like them: human.

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