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The Moroccans of San Nicola Varco

Italian immigration law has left the future unclear for hundreds of Moroccans living in a squalid shantytown.

SALERNO, Italy — A dirty white van zooms down a damp concrete road amid vast plains of bare land. Its mud-splattered headlights pierce the 5 a.m. darkness along the two-lane SS18 as it heads toward the urban lights of Battipaglia. At the first clearing, the van pulls over.

Tall dark-skinned silhouettes emerge from the shadows as the door slides open. Five men quickly jump on. The door slams shut and the van steers away leaving the outskirts of Battipaglia behind. It heads toward Eboli, where massive land plots need to be plowed before the next harvest.

South of Naples, in the heart of the Sele Plain where fresh produce is harvested year round, immigrants have replaced Italians in the fields. Many are from rural Morocco and depend on “gangmasters” for work. These bosses act as labor contractors on behalf of Italian landowners and agribusinesses. The immigrants make about $36 for eight hours of work — less than half the national union wage for agricultural workers in Italy.

“Making people work for that kind of money is a crime and the police know it,” said 35-year-old Radouane from Morocco.

“Landowners pay the gangmaster $7 for each worker that he provides,” said Radouane, who lives with the day laborers but works in commerce. He was lucky enough to find menial work at a local statue shop.

“Every morning, gangmasters drive at least 15-20 people to the fields and charge each of them $4-7 for the ride.”

This recruiting system had characterized the Sele Plain’s economy long before the migrants arrived. It began in the 1930s, when Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime drained the swampy region for agricultural development. But as the Italian proletariat moved up the social ladder, undocumented immigrants became the next source of cheap labor.

Today’s gangmasters are no longer Italian, but legalized immigrants who profit from their own countrymen. Moroccans have supplied farmhands for the region for the past 20 years. Some of these migrants crossed illegally on a train from Spain, or were smuggled in through Italy’s southern coast. Others entered the country with a visa for seasonal work, but couldn’t apply for residency and became undocumented.

“They can’t follow up with the standard procedure because they are abandoned by their middleman,” said union leader Anselmo Botte, who pioneered the organizing of immigrant workers in the Sele Plain.

Upon arrival, visa holders have only eight days to report to the police or lose their legal status. That’s usually when Moroccan middlemen introduce them to gangmasters.

Off the SS18, at the worker pick-up site, a road sign reads: “San Nicola Varco.” As the day slowly brightens, a few Moroccan workers still wait under a plump palm tree at the edge of the lot. They hide their faces inside raincoats and thick sweaters, at times staring up at the sky.

“If it rains, the boss won’t come,” said 19-year-old Mohammed as he tapped his foot into a puddle from the previous night’s rain. Nearby, 45-year-old Said smiled under a thick black moustache. Like many Moroccan migrants, he speaks only Arabic.