Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

New mobility regimes, new forms of exploitation in Sicily

Asylum seekers, refugees and poor EU citizens are vulnerable to labour exploitation in EU member states. Sicily’s agricultural sector illuminates how structural gaps and individual needs exacerbate that vulnerability.

Letizia Palumbo Alessandra Sciurba
9 July 2015
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Migrants land in Palermo. Lucio Gancio/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The thousands of migrants and refugees making their way to Europe today are, tragically, discussed mainly in terms of death rates, drownings, and possible responses. What is much less discussed is what happens to those that make it past the border guards and onto the European continent. Many such individuals join the ranks of Europe’s exploitable labour force and begin to work alongside their poor EU counterparts in many labour sectors such as agriculture. Their vulnerability, which is not sufficiently addressed by either European or national policies, derives in part from the new mobility regimes which mark current migratory patterns.

The economic crisis has significantly changed the composition of migrants moving to and within Europe. The lack of concrete and realistic opportunities has discouraged non-EU ‘economic’ migrants from making their way across the common external border, especially if their traditional country of destination has been strongly affected by the crisis. As a result, the main protagonists of the current migratory movements are refugees and EU citizens. The latter are predominantly Romanian citizens who have been ‘pushed out’ by the ever-widening gap between the cost of living and the average salary.

Sicily’s agricultural labourers come from both these groups. Individuals from sub-Saharan countries, many of whom are asylum seekers and refugees, work largely on the western parts of the island near Trapani, while Romanians dominate in the east in the areas of Ragusa. In both these cases, irrespective of their legal status, migrant workers are subjected to serious labour exploitation and maltreatment. It is worth mentioning here that many Romanian agricultural labourers are women, and as such are particularly vulnerable to sexual as well as labour exploitation.

Different mobility, same exploitation

A comparison of the geographical areas of Ragusa and Trapani shows how different forms and degrees of mobility (due to the specific legal status) interact with individual needs and life projects to produce a complex system of exploitation.

The case of Ragusa reveals that migrant EU citizens are as vulnerable as their non-EU co-workers in Sicilian agriculture. Indeed, their possibility of moving with no restrictions across EU boundaries does not translate into real access to rights and social justice. In addition, Romanians, who often work abroad in order to remit money back home, rarely consider Italy as a country in which they can build their future. It is merely a temporary place of employment, and as such many feel that even abusive conditions can be tolerated. This acquiescence, a product of Romanian labourers’ transience, is one reason why local employers have largely replaced their Tunisian workforce of the 1970s with Romanian labourers. The Tunisian migrants of 40 years ago largely came to Europe to stay, and their planned permanence compelled them to establish a community and bargain for more equitable working conditions.

In contrast, the exploitation occurring in the area of Trapani highlights how the restricted mobility of asylum seekers and refugees exacerbates the vulnerability of an already vulnerable group. The imposition to stay in Italy as the first country of arrival (EU Regulation 64/2013), the slowness of asylum procedures in Italy, and the lack of adequate hosting and protection mechanisms for asylum seekers have the combined effect of forcing asylum seekers to accept any job opportunity they can find.

New migration patterns and forms of mobility together with restrictions in access to rights thus play a fundamental role in aggravating the vulnerability of asylum seekers, refugees and poor EU citizens. The contemporary labour market systemically takes advantage of this vulnerability, especially in those sectors, such as agriculture, which rely on labour segmentation and a cheap, flexible labour force.

Combating exploitation by grasping structural factors

The Sicilian context thus offers us a privileged perspective to evaluate EU and national policies on the exploitation of migrant labour. The principal aims of institutional interventions to date have been to prevent irregular migration and to regulate gangmasters. The focus, however, has been strongly on preventing irregular migration, resulting in the lack of adequate protection for both regular and irregular migrants and the relative impunity of exploitative employers. This approach appears to be even more inadequate if we consider that today the majority of exploited migrants today are not irregular. Moreover, by employing refugees and EU citizens, exploitative employers avoid being accused of facilitation and exploitation of irregular migration.

The only way to combat current forms of labour exploitation in Sicily, as well as in other contexts, is to move from a merely repressive approach to one that is rights-based and capable of tackling the structural factors that create the current vulnerability of migrants. The most pressing issues to address are: the restricted regimes of mobility affecting, particularly, asylum seekers; the labour market segmentation on the basis of gender, nationality and legal status; and the lack of real access to rights and justice for all migrants.

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