Lacking seasonal workers, Italy elevates its long-shunned migrants

Why We Wrote This

Broad, deep-seated distrust – even hostility – toward a social or ethnic group can be hard to change. But could pragmatic need, say due to shortages caused by a global pandemic, start the ball rolling?

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
An Indian worker collects vegetables in Sant'Angelo Romano, Italy, on April 22, 2020. The closure of borders across Europe has left Italy with a shortage of the seasonal workers it needs to bring in its crops.

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Italy has long been at the heart of Europe’s debates over migration, and has been markedly hostile to migrants in recent years. But that stance has been challenged amid the coronavirus pandemic. The inability to get seasonal workers from Eastern Europe during the crisis is threatening Italy’s agricultural sector. So the Italian government has decided to allow some of the estimated 600,000 irregular migrants working in the sector to legalize their status with a temporary residency to prevent crops from rotting in the fields.

“We need to consider this as a first step for broader cultural changes in our country,” says Paolo Pezzati of Oxfam Italia. “In the COVID-19 era, what is needed is that no one remains invisible.”

But while the move is a significant step for Italy, experts say that the underlying systemic problems that make cheap, exploitable labor necessary in Italian agriculture still need to be addressed.

“The real problem is that the attention is only on growers’ economic needs, [and] that hides human beings who are [used] as farm workers,” says Gennaro Avallone, a sociology researcher at University of Salerno.

The heart of Italy’s agricultural sector is concentrated in the southern regions of Calabria and Puglia, the country’s “toe” and “heel” respectively, in fields of tomatoes, lettuce, and orange trees. And in a normal year at about this time, seasonal workers from Eastern Europe would be working in those fields to bring the produce to market.

But the coronavirus pandemic has made this far from a normal year – especially in Italy, one of Europe’s worst affected countries. With most nations in the European Union closing their borders to travel in order to prevent the virus’s spread, there are no seasonal workers coming to Italy from abroad. And without those extra workers, the prospect of fields full of rotten tomatoes and unpicked citrus fruits loomed.

That has prompted the Italian government to rethink its frequently antagonistic approach to the estimated 600,000 irregular migrants working in its agriculture sector. It has agreed to allow farm hands and domestic workers to legalize their status with a residency valid for six months, thereby both addressing Italy’s employment gap and improving the employment and healthcare opportunities available to migrants amid the pandemic.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But while the move is a significant step for a country that has been markedly hostile to migrants in recent years, experts and migrant advocates say that it is only a small step in a much longer journey. The underlying systemic problems that make cheap, exploitable labor necessary in Italian agriculture still need to be addressed, they say. And migrants warn that the government’s decision will not necessarily help them.

“The new decree is not a good decree,” says Mohammed Konare, who picks oranges and tomatoes in Calabria. “Italians do not want immigration; even to rent a house is a problem. Nobody accepts me.”

Essential to Italian agriculture

Italy has long been at the heart of Europe’s debates over migration. Although no longer in power, the right-wing League party remains the country’s largest party and owes much of its popularity to a tough line on migration. The southern European nation is keeping its ports closed to rescue ships loaded with migrants and asylum seekers from Libya. And the question of what to do with unauthorized migrant farmers and caregivers caused acrimony between the governing coalition parties as they finalized a €55 billion ($60 billion) stimulus package.

Italian nongovernmental and civil society organizations have long called for a change to the country’s migration policy, asking for regular channels to access work permits and renewals. 
Paolo Pezzati, Oxfam Italia’s humanitarian policy adviser, welcomes the government initiative as a step in the right direction, but regrets that it does not also reach irregular migrants working in other sectors such as construction or tourism. “We need to consider this as a first step for broader cultural changes in our country,” he says. “In the COVID-19 era, what is needed is that no one remains invisible.”


Mr. Pezzati stresses that vulnerable Italians will also benefit from this initiative, which should give foreign migrants more leverage when negotiating their contracts. He notes that about 40% of the agricultural work force in Italy is irregular, and that Italian laborers are often pressured to take low wages on the grounds that migrants are willing to work for less. It will also help reduce the power of criminal organizations that connect irregular workers with farmers in need of labor.

And migrant workers are essential to Italian agriculture, says Aldo Alessio, the mayor of Gioia Tauro, a strategic port town in Calabria. “The agricultural productivity of the Calabria region is currently largely guaranteed by underpaid migrant workers without rights,” he says. “Our traditional agricultural laborers have almost completely disappeared. ... Without the labor force of immigrant farm workers, agricultural productivity in our region would be zero.”


The bulk of the irregular migrants who work in Italy’s agriculture sector hail from Africa. Often single men, they live in improvised cardboard or plastic sheet homes packed into ghettos or shanty towns with miserable hygiene conditions, and work for a day rate in the fields of southern Italy. Some have been in the country for years but no longer have a valid residency permit, if they ever did.

Mr. Konare, from Mali, is one of those. He arrived in Italy five years ago when he was 17 years old. He says he normally works seven days per week, earning a day rate of €35 ($38) for seven hours of work. But his contract, which expired and wasn’t renewed amid the coronavirus pandemic, stated that he worked only five days per month.


“I don’t know if I will work again, the boss didn’t call me anymore,” he says. Mr. Konare has little faith that the six-month amnesty for unauthorized migrants will help improve his situation in practical terms or meaningfully shift public opinion. He points out that the renewal of an expired residency takes more than a year in Italy, so even those who benefit from the amnesty will soon find themselves in the country illegally again.

The problem of labor exploitation

Many unauthorized migrants live in makeshift camps and ghettos around Calabria, usually in poor conditions. In the ghetto in the small town of Taurianova, for example, about 150 people had to manage without drinking water, toilets, or garbage collection during the pandemic, says Giorgia Campo of the trade union USB Calabria. Migrants in the area found it largely impossible to keep social distance or hygiene rules.


Ms. Campo is among many who hoped the government would pass a sweeping emergency residence permit, normalizing the situation of irregular migrants across sectors, allowing them access to health care and thus controlling the spread of COVID-19. She says she is bitterly disappointed. “This decree cannot be considered as a regularization, the people who will benefit from it throughout Italy will be at most 2,000,” she says, citing an estimate issued by the farmers’ association Coldiretti.


Guido de Togni, cultural manager at Funky Tomato, an agricultural cooperative trying to ensure fair conditions along the tomato supply chain, also thinks the government has much left to do. “We do not believe the relaunch decree will solve the problem of labor exploitation in agriculture,” he says, stressing that the issue is the outcome of unsustainable sales prices imposed by big processing brands and supermarket chains.

“The real problem is that the attention is only on growers’ economic needs, [and] that hides human beings who are [used] as farm workers,” says Gennaro Avallone, a sociology researcher at University of Salerno in southwest Italy. Italian policy-making, he adds, is strongly influenced by propaganda and frequent polling, which often mirrors racist attitudes.

A change would happen if anti-racist solidarity increased in a comprehensive movement for social justice, involving parts of the Italian and non-Italian populations together, he says. But Dr. Avallone expects “neither a change in racist attitudes nor in immigration policies by the Italian state.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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