Italy sent riot police as reinforcements yesterday to a council estate in the south where a cluster of coronavirus cases among Bulgarian farm workers has sparked tensions with locals.
About 700 people placed in lockdown this week in the complex of five blocks of flats in Mondragone – a town north of Naples – would remain isolated for another 15 days, the Campania region’s head Vincenzo De Luca said on Thursday.
Local health authorities said 43 positive cases had been identified and tests were being carried out on all the residents.
Four of the high-rises house Bulgarian workers and their families while Italian squatters occupy the fifth, De Luca said.
The estate is “one of the thousands of ghettos in Italy, where we amass more or less undocumented foreigners to make them live in more or less heinous conditions”, said Corriere della Sera’s editorialist Goffredo Buccini.
The Bulgarians work without contracts under an illegal but well-established system known as “caporalato”, which sees them do long hours in the fields for wages well below the national minimum, Italian newspapers said.
The men earn around €4 an hour, while women earn less and minors pocket just 75 euro cents an hour, according to Huffington Post Italia.
It said that the families were forced to pay rent under the table to the “caporali”, the intermediaries who organise the daily recruitment and transport to the fields of workers, who also run the squats.
The army sent 50 soldiers in on Thursday to help secure the zone after clashes between frustrated Bulgarians who wanted to return to work to earn money for food and angry locals who blamed them for spreading the virus.
Hundreds of Bulgarians who came out to demonstrate on Thursday were persuaded by police to return inside, but locals who learned they had left the Palazzi Cirio estate then turned up to hurl stones and trash cars, local media reported.
A resident at the estate was photographed throwing a chair off his balcony towards the crowd in retaliation.
The breaking of the lockdown was “unacceptable, because respect for the rules is even more imperative when there’s a health risk”, Deputy Interior Minister Matteo Mauri told Radio 24.
Coronavirus tests were being offered to residents living near the estate and if 100 cases surfaced, the whole seaside town of 28,000 people would be locked down, De Luca said.
He said a few people with the virus had since slipped through the net and disappeared, but insisted surveillance of the estate would be non-stop from now on.
Italy’s far-right was set to try to capitalise on the drama.
League leader Matteo Salvini said he would visit next week, while Giorgia Meloni, head of the increasingly popular Brothers of Italy, lashed out at De Luca, who belongs to the centre-left Democratic Party, for failing to “control the migrants”.
“The Bulgarian workers ... are part of the endless labour force working in the southern countryside without rights, often without contracts, without any security,” organised crime expert Roberto Saviano wrote in the Repubblica daily.
“It’s easy in this case to say that those spreading the disease are the foreigners, the invaders, the immigrants, the families of Bulgarian workers accused of going out to continue working,” he said. “But it would have happened the same if it had been Italian workers living in those working conditions, with those wages.”
The estate was built decades ago as part of a project to transform Mondragone into the world Mozzarella capital, he said.
Furious locals “seem to forget that those workers are essential to” the region’s agricultural production, he added.
Clusters of new cases have also emerged in Bologna and other parts of Italy, which lifted its lockdown at the start of June after three months of a pandemic which has officially killed over 34,600 people.
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