The Murder of a Trade Unionist

Soumayla Sacko was killed because he dared to stand up for the migrant workers exploited in the farms and fields of Italy.

A homage to Soumayla Sacko. Isabella Romano / Flickr

Soumayla Sacko was motivated by a strong sense of social justice and standing up for workers’ rights. His engagement as a trade unionist over the last two years was also the product of the working conditions he and his fellow farm laborers faced. Hiring in the fields is seasonal, depending on the crops, which means many of the workers here in Calabria will move to Foggia for tomato-picking season, or even a northern province like Cuneo. The farm laborers have to work from dawn till dusk — twelve hours a day. They earn around €2.50 or €3 an hour, which means even if they work the entire length of the day, their pay is often no more than €25 or €27.

Faced with these conditions, the USB began a campaign to inform the workers about their union rights. Migrants make up a large proportion of all the laborers working in the fields, and so the union also addressed them in other languages like French, English, and Bambara, which was Soumayla’s own language, as a migrant from Mali.

Soumayla was one of those who worked all day, every day without ever having the minimum necessary to live on and asked what could be done to change this. The answer was to organize, in a union concerned with both the working and living conditions of the workers. This latter was indeed a central concern: Soumayla like so many other seasonal laborers lived in a tendopoli (a city of tents and shacks). Indeed, it was while he and some of his coworkers were collecting discarded pieces of aluminium from a long-abandoned blast furnace in San Calogero, in order to continue building the tendopoli, that he was shot dead on June 2.

Should seasonal workers really have to live in such conditions? The tendopoli of San Ferdinando, where Soumayla lived, was first set up in 2010, while Silvio Berlusconi was still the prime minister, and Roberto Maroni of the Lega (a hard-right party that has now returned to government together with the Five Star Movement) was interior minister. A town of three thousand people was created, standing side-by-side with the “official” one. But all those living in the tents and shacks were migrant laborers, living separately from the rest of the population.

Far from the workers being guaranteed somewhere to live, they are hidden away. From the city, the migrants are seen as they head out to the fields, but in the evening when the working day is finished they disappear again, without anyone caring whether they have anywhere to sleep. This condition is a kind of ghettoization, driven both by national politics and the local police prefecture; some have even spoken of symptoms of apartheid. Thousands of people live like this, even though the local area is full of empty houses.

Soumayla was a delegate for the USB union from 2016 onward. We held large assemblies among the farm laborers, which involved four or five hundred people at a time. Given the invisibility of the workers it was also important to us to head outside the tendopoli and to hold these assemblies in the local council’s buildings. There was a high level of participation, as the workers in attendance spoke about their problems and the means of addressing them in all languages — from Italian to English, French, and Bambara.

Even beyond the low wages, a particular problem for the workers is that the employers do not declare their real working hours to INPS (social security). This leaves them unable to claim unemployment benefits out of season. The so-called busta paga [the workers’ pay slips as reported to the INPS] declare only €50 a month. When the workers do in fact receive so little, they can’t even have breakfast every day, never mind have lunch or dinner. Because of this non-reporting, even the workers who spend all day, every day, in the fields never build up the 102 days of declared working time they need to be able to claim benefits during periods when there is no work.

Soumayla did have a temporary permit to stay in Italy. But even such a status does not guarantee stable living conditions, for it is linked to a specific work contract. The employer can also use this as a form of blackmail against the worker who decides to speak out against exploitation or form a union, for he can threaten not only their sacking but also to put an end to their permission to remain in the country. This creates a generalized vulnerability, meaning that some workers will indeed accept being paid less than what they were promised.

At the same time, there is also a clear need to regularize the condition of those who lack such permits. Italy has not carried out any regularization since 2012.  Even beyond the farm laborers, around Italy there are thousands of women migrant workers in home care and domestic work who do not have permits to stay. They suffer extremely low rates of pay, for they are often employed by individuals, no longer self-sufficient, who themselves receive only a €600 a month pension and are not able to rely on the state to provide them with the care they need.

In recent days, some hurried to try and paint Soumayla Sacko as some sort of thief, when in fact he was a trade unionist, motivated by a strong sense of social justice and standing up for the workers’ rights. On June 4, in response to his killing, the USB union declared a one-day strike among the farm workers of Calabria, the region where the murder took place, and also in neighbouring Puglia, where over two thousand people refused to work. In more recent days a man has been arrested for the killing. We demand that the murderer, whoever they are, be properly be brought to justice.

This murder also took place amid a hostile political environment. It is the latest milestone in the anti-migrant atmosphere that was already on display during the recent election campaign, and a spate of racist killings. Today what we are seeing in Italy is driven by a politics that blames anyone considered “different” for the wider poverty and inequality. When politics cannot give answers for citizens’ need for a right to work, a right to housing, or to a welfare state, and we instead see austerity and a rise in social inequalities, some will try to turn the population against whoever is different, including of course migrants.

This is combined with a wider normalization of racism. This is no longer just a matter of private thoughts, but a racism that is also openly expressed, sometimes even through physical violence. We have already seen the terrorist attack against West African migrants in Macerata during the election campaign, and the killing of the Senegalese migrant Idy Diene in Florence the day after the vote. Being an immigrant has become synonymous with poverty, precarity, and marginalization, because the established norms have created a cage around their working life and engagement in society.

Migrants are poor not because of where they are born, but because of the rules that trap them. In fact, this same impoverishment is also today affecting ever-wider swathes of what we might call the “indigenous” Italian population. What might a few years ago have looked like a situation particular to migrants is now becoming more generalized — having an Italian ID card is no longer able to protect you from it. Millions of young people are today experiencing this.

This has not simply led to a war among the poor. Indeed, our union has been able to combine the organization of migrant and Italian-born seasonal laborers. These latter were notable by their presence on May Day, when the USB held a national demonstration in Reggio Calabria, which raised the demands for equal wages and equal work. But what we are today seeing is an ever-more repressive war against the poor, or more particularly, against those who are determined to organize to put an end to this situation and fight for social justice.

On the day of the strike, responding to Soumayla’s killing, the USB received a call from the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) Roberto Fico, who is today the president of the Lower House of Parliament. A delegation from our union then had a meeting with him at the Montecitorio (seat of the Chamber of Deputies) on June 7, which lasted for more than an hour.  He expressed his condolences to us, to those close to Soumayla, and his family. We stressed the need to confront the question of the seasonal laborers’ working conditions, and to that end requested a meeting with the new labor minister, the M5S leader Luigi di Maio.

We sought a meeting with the labor minister, and not with the interior minister, because while some might want to make this an issue of immigration, we want to talk about living and working conditions. We want to get to grips with the extremely tough situation that Soumayla himself fought to overcome. After three days of silence, the new prime minister Giuseppe Conte did mention Soumayla’s killing when he addressed the Senate on June 5, and we have called on the state to take on the responsibility and the costs for returning the murdered worker’s corpse to Mali so that his wife can see his body and give him a last kiss.

Roberto Fico has said that next Monday, June 11 he will come down to Calabria and meet with the farm laborers as well as visiting the San Ferdinando tendopoli. At the same time, the USB is itself preparing further actions. As our delegation told the president of the Lower House at our meeting, we have called a mass demonstration against discrimination in Rome on June 16, and on June 30 we will be holding a national conference to prepare a general platform of demands for agricultural labor. That is the next step in our campaign for justice.