ROME — Hundreds of migrant farm workers walked off tomato fields in southern Italy on Wednesday to protest their working conditions after two road accidents killed 16 African laborers in 48 hours, adding a volatile new element to Italy’s wrenching debate over illegal immigration.
“We are not slaves,” the workers chanted as they marched in the red caps that protect pickers from the sun, and have become a symbol of their battle against day-labor exploitation in the province of Foggia.
The deaths dominated prime time television this week and were quickly seized upon by the hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who promised to stop the exploitation by breaking up the ghettos where many migrants live.
“The fight against the mafia and exploitation are priorities of mine and of the government,” Mr. Salvini said on Tuesday, as he met with representatives of the African workers.
Mr. Salvini campaigned on a pledge to expel thousands of illegal immigrants, and his government has turned away boats carrying them from African shores.
But union leaders and labor experts said that ending the exploitation of migrants is a complex task that defies simply solutions.
The workers who were killed came from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. They were headed back from fields that, for a few weeks in the summer, produce millions of tons of tomatoes and a bare livelihood for thousands of migrant workers.
Decades ago, as farm contracts became more rigid for companies in Italy, illegal recruitment agents set themselves up to provide seasonal workers, a business that has turned increasingly exploitive in recent years, according to union leaders and investigators.
Each harvest season, thousands of migrants seeking a better life and remittances to send home to their families land in Italy’s southern regions.
For years, this large pool of workers allowed recruiters — often of the migrants’ same nationality — and farmers to build a lucrative business on their backs, a vicious circle that authorities have sometimes failed to break, and sometimes ignored. As the number of migrant day-laborers has increased, their already-low wages have dropped and many workers have been trapped in slavelike conditions.
The problem burst into public consciousness this week after newscasts on Monday showed footage of a rickety, overturned van in Foggia surrounded by scattered tomatoes and 12 bodies covered in white sheets.
The images mirrored those from this past weekend, when another truck transporting tomatoes in the same region slammed into a similarly unsafe van, killing four foreign workers and injuring others.
Each of Monday’s passengers had paid 5 euros to travel in a van originally equipped with nine seats. At the time of the crash, the van was carrying 14 men.
The van operated under a Bulgarian license plate, in order to save insurance money and avoid legal troubles in case of accidents.
“The two accidents were not chance,” said Daniele Iacovelli, an official with Flai Cgil, a union of agricultural and food workers. “It’s a matter of statistics if you have an estimated 200 or 300 perilous vehicles roaming the streets with up to 20 people packed in them.”
Migrant workers and their advocates have long called for a public transportation system during the peak harvest season so that laborers are not forced to use the middlemen’s inhumane vans.
“The lack of such a system forces them to travel like animals,” Mr. Iacovelli said, adding that the union has been protesting the conditions for decades.
Recruited via word of mouth and WhatsApp, the migrants often live in shantytowns with no running water or electricity. The shantytowns are inundated with mud when it rains, and offer only metal sheets as protection against the sun.
“Evacuating people from the ghettos is a priority only if we offer them a proper shelter and better working conditions,” Mr. Iacovelli said of Mr. Salvini’s remarks. “Their salaries are too low to rent an apartment.”
Last year, a fire killed two Malian workers at a refugee camp north of Foggia, and the authorities subsequently moved out residents. Today, the camp is home to thousands of migrants seeking a daily job.
Law-enforcement authorities are struggling to enforce a recent law intended to combat worker exploitation, because of the huge business interests behind the system and the number of vulnerable workers involved.
More than 50,000 day-laborers live in the Foggia area during its picking seasons. Officials believe that 50 percent of farmers in Foggia Province employ seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, Africa and Italy under illegal conditions. Unofficial surveys put that number as high as 90 percent.
Foreigners, especially those in the limbo of Italy’s lengthy asylum procedures, have urgent need for money and accept salaries as low as 20 euros a day, for 12-hour workdays picking tomatoes under the scorching summer sun.
Even the workers with regular papers and who have been in the country for decades rarely receive the benefits and salaries required by law.
“We treat them like this, but without them, we’d not eat tomatoes or zucchini in Italy anymore,” Mr. Iacovelli said.