Cameroonian Yvan Sagnet had football as a first passion and it was that which drove him to study in Italy, home to famous club Juventus.
In Italy, Yvan Sagnet would, however, discover a more consuming passion that would define his life in the years to come.
Sagnet arrived in Turin, Italy over 10 years ago to continue his studies. A failed exam, however, meant that he was no longer eligible for a maintenance grant which translated to him being in dire need of money.
In search for money, he ended up in Nardo where he had heard of a farm that was looking for day workers. It was there that Yvan Sagnet’s journey to the point where he is soon to be named a Knight of Italy’s Order of Merit began.
In the farm at Nardo, Sagnet discovered “caporalato”, a notoriously exploitative system in Italy where farm owners recruit fruit pickers and other seasonal workers through an intermediary. Speaking of his experiences in Nardo, Sagnet says;
“At the place there was a tented village with 800 workers living with only five showers and unimaginable hygiene conditions,”
“There were Tunisians, without doubt the biggest group, but also Moroccans, Angolans, people from Burkina Faso, Mali… I was the only Cameroonian.”
“People talk about poverty and misery in Africa but, here, in southern Italy, in the heart of Europe, I have seen human beings stripped of every last scrap of dignity.”
Caporalato is actually outlawed in Italy but it is still a widespread practice. It involves employers using various means to avoid both payroll taxes and responsibility for the workers being paid illegally low wages.
For this reason, the employers work with intermediaries who can claim to be paying the workers the right amount but instead make deductions from the worker’s salary for services, ranging from transporting them to farms to providing bottles of water that are necessary while they toil under the broiling sun of the Italian south.
Caporalato is as close to modern slavery as anything can get. The labourers frequently endure 16-hour work days for wages between 20-25 euros per day ($21-$27) from which the price of water and sandwiches are deducted.
“Some people worked through Ramadan, when they could not eat or drink (during daylight hours), If someone fainted, they would not be helped up, anyone who asked to be taken to hospital would have to pay their transport.”
In a 2015 report, Italian trade unions estimated that the number of African workers caught in the caporalato arrangements was between 300,000 and 400,000. Yvan Sagnet tasted the system and decided to do something about it.
One morning, the owner of the farm that Sagnet was working on announced an increase in the workload without a corresponding increase in pay. In the spirit of those who led revolutions in the times of the slave trade, Sagnet influenced his fellow workers to throw down their tools. Describing what happened, Yvan Sagnet says;
“We blocked the road, traffic jams built up and the police arrived, local media too.
“It was what we wanted, to attract attention to the conditions we were working under.”
Immediately, Sagnet became the voice of a revolution and sperheaded a strike action that lasted a month and ended with workers winning improved pay and convictions for several intermediaries and employers.
Arrests were made and a law criminalizing caporalato arrangements was adopted by parliament by the end of the same year. Yvan Sagnet returned to his studies but never gave up the fight, which has many times put his life in danger, considering the caporalato system benefited from the involvement of criminal gangs.
Last year, he published a book called “Ghetto Italia” which talks about the conditions in the farms and blames major retailers for the situation.
Now, at the age of 31, Yvan Sagnet is to be honored with Italy’s Order of Merit for what was a dangerous fight protecting migrant workers from unfair exploitation in a system that was often sponsored by organised crime.
It will be hard to argue that the Cameroonian is not deserving of the honor.