Artistic webzine on migration, borders, human rights

Bitter Oranges – African migrant workers in Rosarno. Interview with Carole Reckinger

“It is really a new form of slavery. Actually, it is a step further than slavery. In classical slavery, the slaves were the property of the landowners. You make sure your property stays in a more or less good shape, even if you exploit them. In this new situation, people don’t belong to anyone, and are completely interchangeable. The exploiters don’t even need to make the slightest effort.” – Carole Reckinger, writing from Rosarno, August 2013.

As of 2nd December 2014, a selection of photographs and first-person testimonies from Bitter Oranges will be exhibited at the Abbaye de Neumünster in Luxembourg. In 2015, the exhibition will travel to Vienna, Innsbruck, and Rome.

From 2nd December 2014 to 25th January 2015, a selection of photographs and first-person testimonies from Bitter Oranges will be exhibited at the Abbaye de Neumünster in Luxembourg. In 2015, the exhibition will travel to Vienna, Innsbruck, and Rome.

Bitter Oranges is an ethnological and photographical project documenting the situation of migrant workers in the fruit plantations of southern Italy. Over a period of three years, anthropologists Dr Gilles Reckinger and Dr Diana Reiners, together with photographer and sociologist Carole Reckinger, regularly visited the fields and camps in Rosarno, accompanied by the migrants themselves in order to better understand the plight and challenges they face. In the absence of the three researchers, the migrants continued to photograph their day-to-day lives, offering a intimate and often unexpected window onto the reality of their situation. The Bitter Oranges project aims to shed a strong light on a phenomenon all too conveniently hidden away from public conscience.

Interview with photographer and researcher Carole Reckinger.

Le monde n’est pas rond. How was the ‘Bitter Oranges’ project born?

Carole. Bitter Oranges looks at what happens to the African migrants once they are brought from Lampedusa to the Italian mainland. Since 2012, together with anthropologists Diana Reiners and Gilles Reckinger, we regularly travel to Calabria in order to conduct research on this question. What we found there lies at the limit of the unbearable: in the heart of Europe, people have no other choice than to live in unheated tents and makeshift barracks, because they cannot afford decent accommodation despite their hard work on fruit and vegetable plantations. What we learned is that these conditions do not only prevail on the orange plantations, but on all fruit and vegetable plantations throughout Italy (as well as Spain, Greece, etc.). The same is also true for meat and fish processing. We decided to take the oranges in Italy as an example. But similar stories can be found throughout Europe.

Through Bitter Oranges we look at the living and working conditions of the orange pickers. Most live in overcrowded migrant labour camps, the not-so-lucky ones need to construct makeshift camps, sleep in abandoned factories, or even rough it on the street. Survival becomes for many the only option, accepting even the most degrading treatment and living conditions. In Rosarno, people with recognised asylum status and ‘irregular’ migrants without papers pick oranges side by side, working in the same conditions.

Lmnpr. How many times have you visited the camps in Rosarno? Any collaboration and/or resistance during your field work?

Carole. Since early 2012 we visit Rosarno regularly, usually every few months for about a week. We take part in the everyday lives of the inhabitants and talk about their day-to-day survival, their life stories and their perspectives for the future. This close contact over a long period of time, and our witnessing of the migrants’ dire living conditions, allowed for the creation of a relationship based on trust with many of them. Some of them agreed to have their stories recorded on tape, and most were eager to have their living conditions made known to the public in the hope of a betterment of their wage and housing situation. We want to understand how they live, under what conditions they have to work, and what options they might have to get out of this situation. The overwhelming majority are men. Many stay in Rosarno all year round, and we try to stay in touch with most of the men we meet. So far we have not encountered any resistance, but we spend many hours explaining what we are doing and why. We never take pictures without explaining to everyone what we are doing. This can sometimes take days.

Lmnpr. Five men volunteered to document their daily lives using simple digital cameras between your visits to Rosarno. What are some of the most insightful photographs you received from the migrants?

Carole. In the beginning our idea was to document what we see. However, we soon realised that we needed to give the men an opportunity to become active actors in our project. But how can people whose voice is continuously excluded from public discourse make themselves heard? The participative approach of the photographical project takes this concern into account: we gave some of the men digital photographic cameras to document their daily lives and capture what they want to show to the outside world. The goal is to combine the focus of the researchers and the gaze of the people concerned in order to give a voice to the socially disenfranchised. 5 men participated and most of the pictures they shot are really interesting and at times even surprising. One of the men for example documented the fish drying process, and the pictures are shot quite artistically.

Lmnpr. The Christmas season is coming up, and with it, thousands of migrant workers will begin picking oranges and tangerines in Calabria for a hunger wage. Is there enough work to go round, and do you have any indication of how much the workers earn?

Carole. The orange-picking season in Rosarno lasts from October until February. About 2000 migrants come to Rosarno in the hope of finding work. The plain of Gioia Tauro in Calabria, between the Strait of Sicily and the mountains of Aspromonte, offers ideal conditions for the cultivation of oranges. Summers are hot and dry, winters cold and rainy. Calabria produces tangerines and orange varieties primarily for juice production. The usual daily wage is 25 euros a day, for 12 hours of work. Most people do not find work every day. The African harvest workers are hired on a daily basis without legal contracts.

Before sunrise, the job seekers gather at an informal meeting point in the centre of town. A foreman – capo – picks them up and drives them to the plantation. As many men as possible are crammed into the van. The workers have to pay the capo 3-5 euro each for the drive. Competition is very high, and it is even more difficult to find work without a capo. Most of these foremen are Africans who have managed to work the system to their advantage by networking.

A migrant wokers' camp in Rosarno. Photo © Carole Reckinger

A migrant workers’ camp in Rosarno. Photo © Carole Reckinger

Lmnpr. How institutionalised is the exploitation of workers in the fruit plantations? What can the average European citizen do to avoid indirectly supporting and financing a situation which, as you once explained to me, goes beyond the ’traditional’ concept of slavery?

Carole. In 2010, Rosarno featured briefly in the media. Italian teenagers had shot an African harvest worker with an air rifle. Following this event, about 2,000 African seasonal workers demonstrated against discrimination and for better working conditions. Violent clashes ensued, and the Africans were driven out of the city overnight. Video surveillance of the city later proved that violence and vandalism was committed by the locals and not by the migrants. The uprising did not change working conditions for the better. Nevertheless, many of the migrants returned shortly afterwards.

The problem is that if you keep people in highly precarious situations over long periods of time, they are made to accept precariousness as their fate. This in turn makes them vulnerable, and gives them no choice but to adapt to the unstable and underpaid jobs in the informal or illegalised economy. The high competition of people willing to work for less and less money to be able to survive plays into the hands of large transnational companies and helps them to maximise their profits. A textbook neoliberal worker is formed, offering the highest flexibility and mobility. These people are voiceless, and have no opportunity to demand legal working papers and better working conditions. The solution for us is not to stop eating oranges (and the situation is similar for all food production), but we need to lead a discussion on the effects our current system has on the most vulnerable.

See also:

Welcome to Europe! – A view from Italy. The creation of a textbook neo-liberal worker, by Carole Reckinger & Gilles Reckinger, Le monde n’est pas rond (printed newspaper, March 2013), pp. 16-19.

– Gedanken aus dem Niemandsland, by Rudolf Söllner (in German)

Interview with Gilles Reckinger on Radio Innsbruck, by Michael Gams & Sónia Melo, March 2013 (in German)

bitter-oranges.com (multilingual)

Carole Reckinger is a journalist, photographer, researcher and international peaceworker. Co-director of Bitter Oranges, and of P2I – Partnerships for Indigenous Initiativesa non-profit organisation based in Luxembourg working with indigenous people around the world, with a special focus on projects and issues in West Papua, Indonesia.

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