In Apulia, the breadbasket of Italy, there lies a no-man’s land populated by tens of thousands of modern-day slaves. In this gray area, men and women rise before dawn and pile onto buses and vans that shuttle them from the ghettos to the countryside. For a few euros per day, they ensure the Italian food industry carries on smoothly. Here, rights have not been suspended: They simply don’t exist.

New revelations released yesterday by the rights group CGIL Puglia bring into relief the troubling abuses taking place in Apulia, the region at the heel of Italy’s boot. According to the 300-page report, “Agriculture and migrant labor in Apulia,” most of the farms, landowners and temp agencies there bypass Italian labor laws, keeping workers in shanty towns and paying many of them just €15 per day.

The raw data tell the story. Of 1,818 inspections on Apulian farms by the Ministry of Labor in 2014, “925 (about 50 percent) were completed with irregularities.”

The consequences of those violations are borne by the farm laborers, an increasing number of whom are foreign, seasonal migrants. In Apulia, “the total number of contract workers in 2013-2014 increased from 180,748 to 181,273, an increase of 525 (+0.3 percent).” The proportion of foreigners in total rose from 21.9 percent in 2013 to 22.5 percent in 2014,” of whom the proportion of non-E.U. workers is “gaining ground, passing from 33.9 percent to 34.7 percent of the total.”

The widespread violations are part of a cruel equation: more profits for farmers equal starvation wages for laborers. Millions of euros flow into the coffers of companies operating with total disregard for the law. “The amount of money that cycles through this perverse system of illegal hiring practices, just during the period of tomato harvesting, ranges from €21 million to €30 million,” according to the report.

This isn’t a new phenomenon in the Apulian countryside, but in recent years shadowy practices have been increasing exponentially, even to the point of brutality and violence, erasing fundamental human rights.

Workers employed in the fields are almost always undocumented migrants who live in one of 55 Apulian ghettos. The 40 most populous house 100 people. Each earns about €400-500 per month. But their meagre income isn’t all their own. Traffickers extract a €1-2 daily commission and €5 to drive them to the fields. They also profit from housing (which costs about €200 per month per person), food (€2-3 upcharge on the price of a sandwich) and even recharging mobile phones (€3 for a charge). The report calls this exploitation slavery.

Sociologist Leo Palmisano, who edited the report, stressed that this is a well-established and structured system. Activists know all about this, but it continues to horrify them.

The ghettos, self-built villages that almost always lack basic services like drinking water or electricity, are the main symbol of the atrocity. “It’s impossible for a laborer who earns €15-20 per day to rent a house,” the report reads. It’s not enough to file a complaint because officials sense no emergency; the laborers are “invisible in the eyes of local governments. … The agricultural production system is interested in cramming large-scale illegal hiring into only a few places, far from the eyes of the community and indifferent even to law enforcement.”

The slave labor ghettos are thus a consequence of the inability of national, regional and municipal governments to respond to the needs of laborers, who are physically worn down. The workers “increasingly have different muscle and joint diseases,” according to two groups, Emergency and Doctors for Human Rights.

To Giuseppe De Leonardis, the secretary of CGIL Puglia, the blame rests with the regulators. “The preference is to maintain appearances and not look for irregularities to safeguard the product,” the industry. “But it’s imperative to see these 50,000 migrant workers in Apulia. Even the dead” have not been a part of the regional discussion, he added, referring to workers who died last summer.

Susanna Camusso, a prominent trade union leader in Italy, shines the spotlight on temp agencies. “If we cleaned up the temporary companies, overall, I think we would do an extraordinary favor to the labor market.”

–> Originally published in Italian at il manifesto on Nov 12 2015