Ibrahim Diabate arrived in Italy in 2008 from the Ivory Coast. His was not the terrible (and, unfortunately, usual) journey that most of the immigrants arriving on our shores have to face, after having been in Libya and crossing the Mediterranean. Ibrahim arrived in Fiumicino, with a regular visa. In the Ivory Coast he was an activist and used to do several jobs: he was a farmer, a merchant and a professor. Once in Italy, he moved to Treviso, where he worked for a farm that suddenly went bankrupt. Then he moved to Rome, where he slept at the social center Forte Prenestino. After 6 months, he heard that in Saluzzo, Piedmont, they were looking for laborers to pick fruit: kiwis and peaches. Even if the payments totally undeclared, 25 euros a day and without a contract.
He stayed in Saluzzo for two years. There, he resumed his activism, he engaged in the “Saluzzo anti-razzista” anti-racist committee, and he fought for the rights of farm laborers when, in Calabria, the revolt broke out against the exploitation and the violence of ‘ndrangheta, illegal hirers and illicit entrepreneurs.
In october 2010, ten months after the revolts in Rosarno, he decided to move to Calabria.
“It’s better to go where all the services are missing”, says Ibrahim. “In October 2010 I arrived in Rosarno and I found out that it was a very difficult territory, lacking all services, so I and my companions of SOS Rosarno started to fight for the freedom of the territories, and to defend the rights of small farmers and farm laborers, who are in the same position. Also in Rosarno I grew and I picked mandarins and oranges. “When the project SOS Rosarno started, I had my first regular contract in Rosarno, with a pay of 48 euros a day, the possibility to get unemployment benefits, and working 7 hours a day with an hour lunch break. That was the answer to the revolt that took place months ago”.
Today, SOS Rosarno is an association committed to an agricultural model that respects nature and the rights of farmers and laborers, and increasingly widespread in the net of the Fairtrade Purchasing Groups (GAS). “We pay laborers with the right wage, for the right amount of working hours and with the possibility of unemployment benefits. And we are hiring more and more laborers so we can respond to the problems of this territory. It’s a social fact. It is not easy. But we believe in what we have started, and we intend to carry it on until the end”.
In July 2019, through SOS Rosarno Ibrahim learned that Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI), active in the reception and rights of immigrants, was looking for a cultural mediator. And here a new work experience for Ibrahim began, who in the meantime had attended a regional course in cultural mediation financed with European funds and a training course for ASGI legal operators. With Mediterranean Hope, he works to find solutions to the needs of migrant people who live in the shacks and work in the fields of the plain of Gioia Tauro.
Together with Francesco Piobbichi, another FCEI operator, Ibrahim gave life to the project “Luci su Rosarno” (Lights on Rosarno), to light up all the streets of the plain and prevent farm laborers moving by bike from having accidents.
“What we are trying to do is bringing light. ‘Luci su Rosarno’ means two things: actual light, and enlightenment. The streets are not illuminated. Each year, people die hit by cars; some motorists do it on purpose, for racist reasons, others because they don’t see them, since many of them don’t wear any reflective vests, and there is no visibility.
This is one of the problems we are combating to light up the streets of Rosarno. Also, we had a debate on the pandemic, we went to the various ghettos where farm laborers live with no sanitary facilities, we have brought them light so they could move within the shacks, cook or walk in the darkness where they live. We have lit up seven ghettos, between Rosarno and the infamous village made of containers. We distribute lights to be put on the bikes, as well as reflective vests. We are trying to prevent another riot now. Less then a week ago, more laborers were run over. There is anger, there is fatigue, things can get out of hand over nothing, the situation can become hard to handle if the authorities do not take their responsibilities.
In addition, we shed lights on the rights of the laborers, because they are exploited. They work from 5 am to 4 pm, they get home tired and, when it is time to file for unemployment, they get 3 or 4 days of work. They have no possibility to apply for unemployment. This is grey work”.
There are three types of contract, says Ibrahim: “white work, which is what SOS Rosarno offers; grey work, that is when only a small part of the hours you worked are declared, instead of black work, where none of the worked hourse are declared. And this is what’s happening currently: with police checks becoming more frequent, black work is becoming gray work. There are no rights. We must shed light on this too”.
The laborers are self-organizing to get a pay rise from 25 to 30-35 euros. “Many of them work by the piece, 90 cents or 1 euro per box of mandarins, for the oranges it’s 50 cents per box. These boxes go to large retailers. The large-scale distribution is the crucial point of this crysis. The farmers are between the hammer and the anvil. Those who own a piece of land, who live from that, if they don’t sell the products to the mass distribution they have to save money, and they do it at the expense of the laborers, who are the weak link of the chain. We are not trying to justify the exploitation of the laborers, but this is a consequence of the system of large-scale distribution. The farmers only have two choices: either abandoning their land, or exploiting the laborers. You can’t abandon your land, so you must exploit the laborers. It is difficult to break this dynamic. What can be done? Inviting the mass distribution to a debate to say ‘Take your responsibilities. There is a social problem, you are exploiting a territory: what’s in it for the farmer? What’s in it for the territory? What’s in it for the laborer?’. The social responsibility must be placed on the shoulders of the large-scale distribution.
These big companies that buy oranges and mandarins from the plain of Gioia Tauro… They must squeeze the juice out of the oranges, not out of the workers!”.
Like Mediterranean Hope, Ibrahim is trying to carry on other projects to make proposals to the regional government of Calabria. Right now, the emergency is the pandemic: “In the ghetto of Taurianova, the prefecture has shut off the water since March, right when it was needed the most to ensure hygiene and prevent infections”. Together with MEDU and the Red Cross, Ibrahim and Mediterranean Hope are fighting to provide sanitary services and to guarantee medical and health care.
“I will stay in Italy to lend a hand until the day I die. I am not a trade unionist, I am an activist“, says Ibrahim, who has dedicated a book of poems to his experiences of exploitation in agriculture, titled “Yen Fehi, Bako. Songs of struggle and love”.