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Italy: the invisible migrants in the fields

Thousands of vulnerable agricultural workers are suffering at the hands of vast criminal networks exploiting their migration status then abandoning them to Covid, reports SABRINA TUCCI

THIS summer Italy is again witnessing high numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life.

While those arriving to the country’s shores are scapegoated, accused of wanting to abuse the system and since the outbreak of Covid-19, spreading the virus, many of those already on Italian soil are subjected to exploitation in the country’s agricultural fields, ignored by politicians and far from the eyes and hearts of ordinary citizens, often mostly concerned about getting fresh produce to their kitchen tables at bargain prices.

The research institute Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto, found that between October 2018 and October 2020 around 180,000 farmworkers in Italy were at risk of being recruited under the caporalato system, an illegal organised network which dominates the recruitment and management of workers and benefits from their exploitation.

As detailed in studies by the environmental organisation Associazione Terra and scholars Tagliacozzo, Pisacone and Kilkey, many of these workers are sub-Saharan Africans, Indians of Sikh ethnicity and North Africans with different legal statuses, as well as EU citizens from Bulgaria and Romania.

They work in hazardous, inhumane conditions, being subjected to extreme forms of coercion, including physical and sexual violence, threats of violence against them and their families and withholding of wages and documents. Large numbers live in shanty towns without electricity, drinking water and sanitation, in remote rural areas with no access to public transport and the services of urban areas.

These workers are among the most vulnerable women and men in Italy, the invisible migrants made even more vulnerable by Covid-19. According to sociologist Marco Omizzolo, the pandemic saw an increase of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent in the number of migrants exploited in agricultural fields under the caporalato system, including the worsening of their working conditions and increased impunity afforded to exploiters, facilitated by the suspension of controls on farms.

In its case study of the Piana of Gioia Tauro, south of Italy, human rights organisation Medici per i Diritti Umani (MEDU) found that between November 2019 and May 2020, migrants have kept living in uninhabitable conditions in informal settlements abandoned by institutional initiatives for the containment of the virus, such as the prohibition on group gatherings, the relocation of people to more suitable places, or the establishment of “quarantine hotels” for those testing positive to Covid-19 or with symptoms.

Many have been refused access to protection measures, including essential health services, due to the lack of residency documentations. Others had no option but to continue working throughout the pandemic due to the lack of financial relief from the government. It is perhaps unsurprising that these conditions have led to an outbreak of the virus at the end of 2020, as reported by MEDU during a follow-up visit to the area between October 2020 and April 2021.

To address this situation, the government has issued the Law Decree of May 19 2020 which allows undocumented workers to apply for a six-month legal residency permit.

While a positive step in the eyes of many, the law has many shortcomings. To start with, it excludes migrants who were stripped of humanitarian protection or legal status by former far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini’s Law Decree 113 in 2018.

Furthermore, it only includes undocumented migrants working in the agricultural, farming, fishing and domestic care sectors, leaving the needs of undocumented migrants in areas such as tourism, construction and catering unaddressed.

As noted by academic Asia Della Rosa, the law only gives a few, selected migrants a temporary escape from irregularity, showing a logic that is oriented towards addressing labour shortages and preserving productive sectors at risk due to lockdowns and border closures, rather than upholding the human rights of all undocumented workers.

Additionally, the law does little to ensure the right to health of migrants which, while being free of charge for everyone regardless of their legal status, is in practice limited by bureaucratic hurdles and inconsistencies in its application (whereas most of the 20 Italian regions require a social security number to book an appointment for vaccination, only few of them accept the temporary numbers given to migrants).

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, having a temporary permit does not mean that exploitation will stop, nor that the risks faced by migrants where they work and live will disappear. The large numbers of EU citizens from Bulgaria and Romania trapped in exploitative work is a stark reminder of that.

A full regularisation of migrants is needed, alongside harsh controls over the entire food supply chain in order to detect exploitation, regulations that prohibit retailers, processors and distributors from setting retail prices below the costs of production, pushing farmers to employ low pay, vulnerable migrant workers and a crackdown on exploiters and illegal hiring.

However, while the above measures are essential, the exploitation of migrants and the neglect of their human rights is a structural problem that cannot be solved simply with a change in law and policy.

Structural change is only possible if a shift in public perception takes place, where the invisible, expendable and ungrieved life becomes a visible, unreplaceable and mournable one. This means understanding and addressing those structures of power based on racism, classism and imperialism that stratify Italian society, create oppression and dehumanise the other.

Sabrina Tucci is a human rights researcher, campaigner and communications professional — @sabrinatucci.

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