Pandemic Borders

Keeping the Italian agri-food system alive: Migrant farmworkers wanted!

In the Italian agri-food sector there is not a labour shortage, but a shortage of rights for workers.

Letizia Palumbo Alessandra Corrado
29 April 2020
Hundreds of field workers and tomato pickers demonstrate the death of 16 African boys in two road accidents on their way back from work. August 8, 2018 - Rignano Garganico, Foggia, Italy
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Picture by Danilo Balducci/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Today, in Europe, core and labour intensive sectors, such as agri-food production and distribution, rely on the employment of a migrant labour force, which is characterised by high flexibility, low wages and exploitative working conditions. The main factors driving recourse to this labour force are price-cost squeeze and the imbalance of power in long supply chains. At the same time, this system takes advantages of the inconsistencies of European and national policies on migration, asylum and labour mobility.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, a rise in demand for essential goods – especially food – has meant that agricultural labourers, and in particular migrant workers, have been recognised as fundamental to feed European countries.

In this scenario, border lockdowns – immobilising thousands of foreign seasonal workers, especially from Eastern Europe – have caused fears of labour shortages and food production losses in many EU countries.

In Italy for instance, according to official estimates, around 370 thousand seasonal migrant workers will be missing this year, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. More than 25% of the food produced in this territory relies on the labour of these migrant workers.

Although the Italian government has recently established that all expiring residence permits (including for seasonal work) are extended for validity until the 15th of June 2020, this seems not to be sufficient to fill the labour shortage in agriculture.

Some of the main national farmers’ organisations, therefore, have suggested implementing the voucher system in this sector, in order to facilitate the recruitment of national pensioners, students and unemployed people. This proposal has also been supported by the right-wing parties. But, as trade unions have stressed, rather than helping to attract more workers, the use of vouchers, which concerns occasional work relationships, would only contribute to make agricultural work more precarious and unprotected, including in terms of health safeguards.

Farmers’ organisations have also asked for the establishment of special “green corridors” allowing the circulation of seasonal workers within the EU in order to bolster the ranks of the labour force in the national fields. This proposal has been supported by the Italian Minister of Agriculture, Food and Forestry who – building on the European Commission Guidelines on the free movement of workers during COVID-19 has started to work on the development of agreements with eastern EU countries to bring seasonal workers to Italy, guaranteeing them safe working conditions. Special measures for the mobility of eastern EU farm workers have been also adopted in Germany, although these workers are expected to stay in a pseudo quarantine while working and sharing accommodation with many other people as usual.

Thousands of migrant farm workers are stuck in isolated and crowded outbuildings, tent cities, or in slums, without basic services such as access to water and sanitation

Some Italian politicians and farmers’ organisations have invoked the rapid adoption of the yearly government decree to employ non-EU migrant workers in agriculture. However, it must be highlighted that this system, which sets yearly quotas for different categories of workers, has proved to be inadequate to implement and has mainly resulted in “ex post regularisations” and abusive practices. Furthermore, since 2011, quotas for non-EU seasonal workers have been drastically reduced, making this system further unable to meet labour demand in branches such as agriculture.

It is an open secret that this demand has been offset, in addition to eastern EU nationals, by asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented third country migrants. However, current national emergency measures, by establishing high mobility restrictions and controls, have made it particularly difficult for these workers, especially for those without a residence permit or a regular contract, to move and look for job opportunities. Moreover, such pandemic measures seem to undermine the action of the illegal gangmasters, so-called caporali, who, in some areas of Italy, tightly manage, in an exploitative way, the recruitment, transport and accommodation of farm workers.

Meanwhile, the dire and degrading living conditions in Italian rural areas raise even more concerns at this time of health emergency. Especially in the south of the country, where thousands of migrant farm workers are stuck in isolated and crowded outbuildings, tent cities, or in slums, without basic services such as access to water and sanitation. In these contexts, the virus could have serious dramatic consequences.

In this light, as many national organisations, trade unions, and workers have claimed, the implementation of regularisation mechanisms for migrants in irregular conditions appears to be more necessary than ever. Similar interventions have been taken in Portugal, where the government has given temporary residence to migrants with pending applications.

While the far right has firmly opposed a regularisation of undocumented migrants, the Italian Minister of Agriculture has expressed her support to this measure. However, the first draft of the Government decree on regularisation seems to be inadequate. It only applies to migrant workers in the agricultural, breeding, fishing and aquaculture sectors.

Regularisation of undocumented migrants is urgent, also to facilitate their access to health and social services during the pandemic. But, it must cover all migrants, irrespective of their role in the labour market.

Certainly, the response cannot be limited to this. A change of the current Italian migration policies is also fundamental in order to create safe and legal entry routes and to remove the link between the residence permit and the labour contract, which constitutes a driving factor of exploitation and blackmail situations.

At the same time, as the Covid-19 emergency sharply shows, in order to fight labour exploitation in the agri-food system, it is necessary to implement structural interventions to bolster the wages and labour rights, and guarantee decent living conditions. New efforts to support those alternative agri-food chains that can ensure fair working conditions and ecological sustainability now appear to be clearly essential.

In the Italian agri-food sector there is not a labour shortage, but a shortage of rights for workers.

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