The Moroccans of San Nicola Varco

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.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Ahmed from Casablanca poses for a picture. “If nobody talks about us,” he said, “nobody is going to help us.”

A muddy path snakes behind the lot into the migrants’ hidden world: a shantytown of more than 800 men — no women or families — that has been here since the 1990s.

Built as a produce market, the cinderblock complex hosts hundreds of men who live without electricity, gas, sewage or garbage collection. The stench of urine travels with the wind. Stray dogs stick their nose inside mounds of garbage that pile up at every corner. Cats are the preferred pets — they kill mice.

“It’s a full humanitarian crisis,” said Alfonsina De Felice, a recently-elected Campania Region Councilwoman who teaches labor law at Naples University.

“We need to approach the case as if there had been a catastrophe, a war or a natural disaster,” said De Felice, who led the first coordinated effort to provide humanitarian assistance to the San Nicola Varco workers.

It began with the installation of 30 showers and 30 chemical bathrooms. Before, the men shared one faucet that supplied cold, undrinkable water.

This humanitarian approach has given De Felice a legal way to dodge Italy’s strict immigration law, at least temporarily.

De Felice has involved the United Nations through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which sponsored a repatriation option for the Moroccans. Those who decided to leave received a one-time payment of about $2,200 — one third given on their departure from Italy and the rest upon their arrival in Morocco.

“We sent back around 50 people,” said IOM Program Officer Fatiha Chakir. Seventy others have asked to be repatriated, “but it’s too late,” Chakir said.

Italy’s new immigration law will be fully implemented this month, theoretically prompting the arrest and deportation of hundreds of thousands undocumented immigrants — anyone who doesn’t hold a job contract. The government says the law is intended to increase security. The opposition calls it aggressive and unrealistic.

“If the Minister of Interior gave us more time we could send back more people,” Chakir said.

On the other hand, most San Nicola Varco occupants chose not to apply.

The stakes are high for those who sign up to become migrants — so high that many immigrants prefer to lie about their conditions than tell family how they live.

“Whoever invented the $2,000 thing to go back to Morocco has no feelings,” said Aziz, a 33-year-old construction worker who lived in San Nicola Varco for six months.

“Going back to Morocco without money is a serious shame,” he said. “Your siblings look down on you, your neighbors talk shit about you and you are simply a loser for your entire community.”

The local humanitarian aid program will end on Dec. 31.

Since Italy’s recent immigration law doesn’t include any avenue for day laborers to become legal, it is unclear whether the Italian police will deport San Nicola Varco occupants in 2010 or the humanitarian community will fight to keep them in Italy.