Can Europe Make It?

Replenished grocery stores tomorrow rely on migrants’ work today

Any attempt to exert a pull factor on workers from other sectors currently made jobless by the virus into agribusiness is shortsighted.

Susi Meret Sergio Goffredo
27 April 2020, 8.10am
Foggia. African migrants march to protest against working conditions in Italy, August, 2018.
NurPhoto/PA. All rights reserved.

The Italian Minister for Agriculture Teresa Bellanova recently stated that in times of Coronavirus, while the north of the country is particularly damaged by the pandemic, “we truly realize that it is we who need the immigrants”, rather than them who need us.

Bellanova is referring to the increasing demand for migrant workers in agriculture to help Italy maintain a fully operative food and agricultural production chain. Coldiretti (the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers) claims that 40 per cent of agricultural products might go to waste, if the needed labour force for the seasonal harvesting of fruits and vegetables is not in place, and quickly. Over 370,000 workers, according to Coldretti, are now needed to harvest agri-food products this year.

The Italian agricultural sector has always been highly dependent on migrant labourers for continuity in production and market distribution. Out of over 1 million agricultural workers with regular contracts, about 28 per cent are migrants and 53 per cent of them are from another EU country, while the rest come from outside the EU. Yet it widely recognised that the number of migrants employed in the agricultural sector is well above these figures, since it includes the irregular farmworkers. The number of immigrants employed in agriculture is well above the 400,000 of the workforce, with an estimated 16.5 per cent employed through informal contracts and 39 per cent working at much lower wages than the regulated contract.

We find higher numbers of migrant agricultural workers in the central-northern districts of Lazio, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna. Agribusiness is one of Italy’s main economic resources, but the sector is still characterised by brutal forms of labour exploitation and segregation with direct and wide-ranging consequences on the health and conditions of the migrant farmworker, leaving the most exploited in the agribusiness sector among the most vulnerable socio-economic groups. The caporalato is a phenomenon that represents an historic plague in agriculture, difficult to eradicate and based on the unlawful recruitment and exploitation of migrant farmworkers by middlemen hired at the lowest conceivable pay (often through piecework) and forced to live in unhuman conditions. Unbelievably – despite the fact that these workers belong to the food and agricultural sector named “essential” in the Conte decree of March 21 which closed down all nonessential production plants – their situation has been even further aggravated by the corona virus pandemic.

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Corona agribusiness

The situation is today paradoxically double edged: on the one hand the agricultural sector is meeting a critical challenge represented by the lack of labour supply while the peak of the harvesting season is quickly approaching. The sector cannot today count on the eastern European farmworkers who in the past have always represented a considerable pool of seasonal workforce to agriculture. The free movement of labour within Europe has been abruptly halted, also as a consequence of border controls, and many workers fear to return for the lack of safety conditions in a country dramatically hit by the virus. Their knowledge of the labour exploitation characterising the sector makes it hard to convince them that “they will work in full security”, as promised by Bellanova in her attempt to convince the Romanian ambassador to put out a call for labour in his country.

That means that even if the European Commission were to allow free mobility for this kind of labour force in a Europe under complete lock-down, it is unlikely that Italy will attract the necessary labour. On top of that, on several occasions migrant farmworkers have been the target of racist attacks and of widespread opinions claiming that immigrants are scroungers taking jobs away and exploiting the system. Among other options, a systematic management of labour demand that can exert a pull factor on workers from others sectors currently made jobless by the virus seems short-sighted and built on faulty premises. The agricultural sector requires committed and skilled manual dexterity, not just for now but in a longer-term perspective. Besides, too many Italians know about the harsh working and living conditions, at times bordering on forms of modern slavery, that characterise this sector. It will not be easy to engage new farmworkers, particularly not in the times of the pandemic.

On the other hand, this new state of emergency triggered by the corona virus has dramatically worsened the conditions of the many migrant farmworkers already in the country, mostly coming from outside the EU. Several of them have entered the country in the past as asylum seekers; many have lost their refugee status as a result of stricter asylum rules. It is estimated that over 26 thousand migrants have lost their refugee status as a consequence of Salvini’s restrictive regulations. Even more of them will be made homeless in the near future. In the labour camps of Rosarno and Calabria, the agricultural work in the orange groves during these weeks is drawing to a close. Many migrant farmworkers are now stuck in the several hoovervilles that pop-up at the outskirts of the town, which at the height of the harvest contain hundreds of people. These are ghettoized places without electricity or running water under conditions that NGOs describe as “inhumane”. For them it is impossible to respect the basic health conditions of social distancing sought by the authorities, not to say the need for frequent hand-washing in places where clean water can be considered a luxury item. But besides the pandemic, their main concern now is how to get a living: they are stuck, as the recent regulations require them to stay at home. Normally they would start moving on to reach other working fields in Puglia, Sicily and Campania for the tomato harvesting, or even further north to Piedmont and Veneto for the peach and apple harvesting. These essential workers that today are advised by authorities to continue working and whose toil is necessary to keep the food and agriculture sector running, live in extreme deprivation and often without valid documents. Crowdfunding was launched a few days ago to provide them with the necessary material resources to buy food to survive: in their shopping list they ask for pasta, biscuits, oil and tomato sauce.

Exposed weaknesses

The corona virus displays the many paradoxes of a situation where lack of farmworkers threatens the continuity of the agri-food chain. At the same time many of those who have continued working in the fields are condemned to destitution and health insecurity. They have nowhere else to go. The pandemic has made even more visible the structural weaknesses of the agrobusiness sector, as well as the complete inadequacy of Italian migration law. The so called ‘fluxes decrees’ aimed at regularising irregular migrant workers only cover 5 per cent of overall labour demand in the agrobusiness sector. The former interior minister Matteo Salvini’s so called ‘Security decrees’ have only worsened the situation, as they strongly contribute to the increased number of irregular migrants.

As the mayor of Saluzzo (a small town in the Piedmont region known for its fruit production), summed up the emergency situation: migrants have nowhere to go, as they have no financial income and their employers have withdrawn the roof over their heads. For the first time this situation might bring the two main actors of the agricultural sector in Italy more closely together, namely the employers and the migrant farmworkers. Both are affected by the pandemic – albeit to different degrees – the former by losing millions of euros in lost production, the latter by losing all they have. Might this be the time to re-think and re-structure the whole Italian agribusiness sector together with Italian immigration law?

Right now, the Antonio Costa government in Portugal has settled on a viable solution: recognising the validity until at least July 1 of documents handed to all those migrants who have applied for a permit to stay. The driving principle here is that in the present global health crisis nobody can be denied access to health care, public assistances and help, if and when needed. Applied to the Italian case this would in fact allow them to regularize and also to give recognition to the many migrants that meet on the fields every day, take care of our elderly, and help us to carry on under the critical lockdown. This coronavirus pandemic should remind us that migrants are essential to our economy and our society. Time has come to give them the rights and recognition they deserve.

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