The Hidden Exploitation of Italy's Migrant Workers
Shortlisted for the Bread & Roses Award 2022
With a Foreword from Liz Fekete
A searing exposé of the netherworld of exploited migrant labour that holds Europe aloft.
In 2013 Ousmane Diallo, a 26-year-old Senegalese olive harvester, lost his life when a gas canister exploded in a Sicilian field. As an African migrant, he was little mourned. But though they've been deliberately forgotten, neither the events of Ousmane's life nor his tragic death are uncommon.
Across Italy today, African workers toil in the fields that make it one of Europe's largest exporters of fruit and vegetables. Having fled home countries devastated by colonialism and global capitalism, those who survive the journey across the Mediterranean arrive on European shores only to find themselves systematically segregated and exploited. They have been subject to anti-migrant policies over decades, from administrations across the political spectrum. Trapped in a chokehold of subhuman living and working conditions, they are the dehumanised Other, invisible by design - the people hidden behind foods and goods branded 'Made in Italy'.
Ciao Ousmane is the story of this subordinated class. Through the lives and stories of Italy's migrant workers, Hsiao-Hung Pai exposes the open secret of how state and society create 'necessary outcasts'. This is a bitter, frank and moving tale of racial capitalism, against which workers constantly find new ways to organise and fight back.
Published by Hurst, January 2021
'Hsiao-Hung Pai is fearless. Not only does she expose how desperate migrant workers are used and abused on European soil; she also reminds us that there is hope when people stand up for their rights together. This book moved me to tears, yet it is also full of courage.' - Benjamin Zephaniah, poet and writer
'A searing insight into the exploitation and racism embedded in our food chains. Told through the eyes of migrant workers, this book highlights the complicity of the Italian state in the dangerous and inhumane treatment of people who move. Its lessons can be applied to every EU nation. A must-read for those who wish to stand up for migrants' rights.' - Minnie Rahman, Public Affairs and Campaigns Manager, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants
'Essential reporting from one of the finest journalists working in the world today. Hsiao-Hung Pai exposes the hidden reality of Europe's "migrant crisis", where African workers in Sicily and Calabria are subjected to ruthless exploitation and systemic racism.' - Matthew Carr, author of Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration
'Ciao Ousmane exposes the racial violence and human cost of cheap labour. It plunges us into the struggles, endurance and everyday victories of the African people who pick our olives, tomatoes and oranges. Inspirational-learn, resist, act!' - Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship, University of Bristol, and author of Us and Them?: The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control
Reviews & Articles
Times Literary Supplement review
The Guardian's 'Top ten books about Sicily', by Jamie Mackay, writer and critic based in Florence, and author of The Invention of Sicily
The Political Quarterly review, 'Among Italy's Outcasts', by Simone Cremaschi, Bocconi University, Milan:
"The book offers a gripping account of everyday life at the margins, combining provocative reflections about the macro-determinants of marginalisation with vivid storytelling of individual lives and plights..."
"Hsiao-Hung Pai's discussion highlights the social, economic and political forces that relegate immigrant workers to the bottom of the social ladder. It shows how ill-conceived legal norms and unscrupulous public administrators concur in excluding immigrants from chances of economic stability. These intertwined forces transform immigrant workers into necessary outcasts - their disposable labour sustains the Italian economy just as their marginalisation secures cheap political consensus amidst rampant racism. In an eminently readable style, the author conveys a thought-provoking discussion of how common sense concepts such as integration and 'legality' become ideological levers, functional to vilify immigrants and divert voters' attention. In addressing these macro-dynamics, Hsiao-Hung Pai convincingly takes stock of recent social science reflections on immigrant marginalisation."
"It is a vivid first-hand account of how immigrants confront the barriers they face. Rather than featuring as passive victims, the book's main characters relentlessly try to choose their best option among the few available one, above all, of between being 'individually homeless on the streets' or 'collectively homeless in a field'. In unveiling these trade-offs, the book paves the way to crucial social science questions... Hsiao-Hung Pai's account of immigrant decision making is the best tribute to immigrants' efforts in resisting systemic exclusion."
The Week in Italy, by Jamie Mackay
Krytyka Polityczna review, by Jamie Mackay
Newlines Magazine (US)
Narrating migration: Whose "story"?
"In Europe's narration, white Europeans have always been the ones to hold the microphone, notepad and pen, observing and documenting. The subjects of their narration are given the opportunity to speak while their voices are filtered, their discontent toned down, their experiences minimised by censors and gatekeepers. For a long time, the migrating person has only been talked and written about, portrayed as having little agency or capacity to take part in shaping their own destiny.
...This Eurocentric narration is part of the continent's colonial legacy. Frantz Fanon suggested through his work that the Black social being has been emptied of content and their agency immobilised. Marked by a permanent absence in a white supremacist society, their sense of non-existence exceeds the mere feeling of inferiority; it is how dehumanisation works day-to-day."
- from the Afterword, Ciao Ousmane
photo by Dave Barkway
"He asked himself the question: if local farmers saw him as a 'model worker,' what was stopping local society from seeing him as a fellow resident? He did not want to feel like a commodity to be used when needed and discarded when not. He longed for human contact in the town. He felt in need of some recognition that he was just like them: human."
- from 'Fires and a Model Worker,' Ciao Ousmane
Photos: Campobello town, its olive production and living conditions of migrant workers/by Hsiao-Hung Pai
View of the town and barbed wire photos by Dave Barkway
A migrant worker and the racial pyramid
"To Europe, both 'migrants' and 'refugees' are seen as alien Others. In this hierarchy, the racialised Other is categorised as deserving or undeserving. The refugee, by their passive, political victimhood, can be granted a conditional place, whereas the migrant, being a 'free, economic agent' in European eyes, is undeserving until they earn their worth through substantial 'contribution' to their host society.
The Eurocentric narration always omits the reality: there is a constant crossing-over and movement between 'refugees' and 'migrants'; the two are one. In Italy, the asylum reception system has clearly formed a symbiotic relationship with the underground world of migrant labour. Europe's racial hierarchy places migrants (which has come to stand for so-called 'economic migrants') at the bottom of the pyramid, the category in which most Africans fall. They are the largest part of the subordinated class, building the Babylon of contemporary Europe." - from the Afterword, Ciao Ousmane
Photos: Italy's harvests, exploitation and state violence/by Hsiao-Hung
Marsala's tomato greenhouse photo by Saikou; Winery photo (left) by Frank; Armed police photos by Dave Barkway; Watermelon harvest by Yahya