Can Europe Make It?

Italy’s all too revealing call for regularising migrant labour

Regularisation should be based on migrant workers’ interests and their need for basic rights.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
6 May 2020
Tomato greenhouse in Vittoria, Sicily.
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Author's image. All rights reserved.

From outside the train window, after passing thousands and thousands of white plastic-covered polytunnels – the greenhouses in which tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables and fruits are grown, Vittoria comes into view. Its train station used to be a busy place every spring. Workers would wait for local pickups in the open square outside, named after Vittoria Nenni, an Italian anti-fascist who died in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. This was where rows of long-distance coaches parked up. From 2007 when Romania joined the EU, up until the Covid-19 lockdown this March, these coaches have travelled between Sicily and the impoverished regions of Romania, bringing the much-needed agricultural workers upon whom the province of Ragusa, Sicily, depends.

This province has been one of the main destinations for Romanians, the largest group of agricultural workers in Italy, numbering around 113,000. By late 2019, there were around 30,000 Romanians living in Vittoria – including those without residence permits – half of this town’s entire population.

Many Romanian workers come from Iași, the second largest city in north-eastern Romania near the border to Moldova. It’s a university town with a population of 500,000, described by most Romanians as “having nothing going for it”. With the economic decline, the average working-class monthly income was under €250.

Polytunnels of greenhouses, Ragusa, Sicily.
Polytunnels of greenhouses, Ragusa, Sicily. | Author's image. All rights reserved.

Nothing going for us in Vittoria or Coventry?

Some Romanians came for the harvest season, but many others ended up staying and settled in Vittoria, Ragusa and the surrounding towns. Most of them work in the vegetable and fruits greenhouses, without contract, for an average of €30 a day. They are the workers of the EU periphery with no rights and no labour protection. For farmers here, employing Romanians also pose less risk of breaking the law by hiring undocumented migrants from outside the EU. They are employed en masse, and when they settle here, they become a reliable army of workers ready to tolerate the sweltering heat and long hours’ backbreaking work in the greenhouses for little reward.

During the lockdown, most farms in the province have tried to survive the labour shortage. Farms that grow only flowers, however, have been badly affected, as non-food retail has been closed during lockdown.

Although travel restrictions across Europe mean that Romanian and eastern European workers are no longer arriving to work in the fields in Italy during the lockdown, many farmers in this province are able to get harvest work done by using their “house workers”, i.e., Romanian and other migrant workers who live nearby and upon whom they’ve depended for years.

A few kilometres outside Vittoria, farmers hired groups of Romanians, whom they called “best workers”, to pick tomatoes in greenhouses the size as football pitches in the spring.

Lockdown and asylum seekers

The large tomatoes earn a farmer €1 to €2 per kilo. In the greenhouses for aubergines – Each kilo of these would earn €2; each crate €20. In 2019, some of the Romanian workers had decided to join their families working in Britain. Most of them had gone by bus from Vittoria, all the way to Coventry to work in the chicken-processing factories, for relatively higher wages. As all the farmers would say, the cost of greenhouse production had increased while competition had driven prices down. What they omitted to say was that this had all led to further squeezing of workers’ wages.

Normally, farmers here also hire Sub-Saharan African workers, for a lower rate than the Romanians: €25 a day, whether they have a residence permit or not. Most of them are asylum seekers from the reception shelters. During the lockdown, however, many African workers are unable to work due to the strict control of movement. Not far from Ragusa, there are currently around 300 African workers stuck in the appalling living conditions inside the tent city of Cassibile – they cannot go to the fields or greenhouses due to movement control and their lack of documents.

Across Italy, African workers living in rural ghettoes, most of them without work, have been left to fend for themselves without even basic protection against Covid-19. In the province of Foggia, thousands of African workers still live in and around the demolished encampment of Borgo Mezzanone, without safety equipment such as masks and disinfectants. The workers’ union USB recently launched a fundraiser to purchase basic necessities and protective equipment to be distributed in the ghettoes in Foggia and Calabria.

The farming communities across the country say they have been hit hard during this pandemic. Not only aren’t Romanian and eastern European workers arriving to harvest the crops, but the internal lockdown and restricted movement between regions in Italy also means that African workers – the most exploited workers in Italy – can’t always access farm work.

According to the ministry of agriculture, the Covid-19 crisis has created a shortage of between 250,000 and 270,000 workers in Italy. As the harvests of asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, tomatoes and melons are underway, something has to be done urgently, said Coldiretti (National Confederation of Agricultural Producers). Otherwise, 40% of agricultural products might go to waste. This will obviously impact hugely on Italy, being Europe’s third largest agricultural sector in terms of overall value, worth £56.6 billion in 2019.

In this context, the regularisation of migrant workers has emerged as a national debate once again. Many civil groups, NGOs and trade unions argue for regularising the country’s undocumented migrants. Unions said that regularisation of migrant workers in the Sicilian countryside is now “an unavoidable necessity”.

The minister of agriculture Teresa Bellanova, who left the PD to join former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party, has called for regularisation of undocumented workers “in order to get the economy moving again”. She asked that these workers in agriculture and the care sector be regularised immediately with temporary residence permits of six months renewable for another six months.

Bellanova’s request under the terms of the Cura Italia bis decree, could mean tens of thousands of migrants being regularised. “75% of the workers [to be regularised] are migrants, mainly Africans,” she said. “Either we get on with the harvest or the products will rot in the fields. Nobody is stopping Italians from offering themselves as pickers, but the truth is that they don’t want to do it.”

Green corridors and amnesty programmes

The Italian government recently established that migrants’ expiring residence permits are extended until the June 15, although it is clear that this won’t be sufficient to fill the labour shortages. Meanwhile, farmers’ organisations, just as the rest of Europe, have asked for the establishment of “green corridors” to allow seasonal workers from eastern Europe to be sent to work in Italy.

It is estimated that there are over 600,000 undocumented migrants in Italy. Apart from those working in agriculture, tens of thousands among the one million migrant domestic workers are also irregular, including over 165,000 domestic and care workers from the Philippines, most of whom are working without contracts. Their informal immigration status means that many of them were easily dismissed by their employers at the beginning of the pandemic outbreak.

Amnesty programmes have always been introduced on gap-filling, economic grounds, and in Italy, they have cut across the political spectrum. The largest amnesty was under the centre-right government in 2002 when nearly 700,000 migrants were regularised just after its Bossi-Fini law was enacted. In 2008, Roberto Maroni, the interior minister of the hard-right Northern League (the predecessor of the League today), proposed a law penalising illegal immigration as a criminal offence. Following the proposal, a public debate about “saving” the “useful” migrant care workers from this new law resulted in a carers rescue decree, a government ordinance which led to around 300,000 migrant care workers being regularised in 2009.

The same gap-filling approach has been behind the government plan for regularisation. The earlier result was the opportunistic proposal of the decree on regularisation, which only applies to migrant workers in agricultural, lifestock, fishing and aquaculture sectors. Migrant workers, i.e., the essential workers, in domestic and care work as well as the logistics sector were all excluded. Currently, the draft decree also stipulates that those workers whose applications are accepted will obtain a temporary resident permit that lasts only until the end of 2020, for accessing work. Campaigners are asking, “Why limit the residence permit to one year, only for the period of the coronavirus crisis?”

The ills go so much deeper – into the heart of society and institutions that have long been penetrated by racism and racial inequality.

Behind the call for regularisation among many civil society groups is the same mindset which evaluates a migrant’s place in society based on their economic input and contribution. It treats migrant workers and their labour as a commodity to be exchanged and bargained for. Market value should not be the basis for demanding a regularisation. During this pandemic, workers’ irregular status means that they couldn’t access support programmes like those provided by municipalities, or even basic health care services. It also means that they couldn’t work in the fields without extreme exploitation.

The call for regularisation should be based on migrant workers’ interests and need for basic rights – such as rights to housing and to be free from racial discrimination, exclusion and exploitation. Ultimately, regularisation is insufficient in addressing the workers’ interests and needs. The ills go so much deeper – into the heart of society and institutions that have long been penetrated by racism and racial inequality. A quick-fix decree or one-off amnesty will not protect migrant workers from the impact of this crisis, nor will it guarantee protection in the long term.

Tomatoes 2
Vittoria, Sicily. | Author's image. All rights reserved.

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