Amid food shortage fears, will Italy legalise migrant workers?

Italy considers amnesty for those working in agricultural sector, but experts warn measures might not stop exploitation.

Inland from Italy’s picture-perfect vineyards and turquoise beaches in the southern Puglia region, 32-year-old Sierra Leonean Ibrahim Bah wakes up in a shantytown filled with huts made of cardboard and wood.

For 12 hours a day, he picks asparagus. When he is paid the full amount, he earns 3.50 euros ($3.83) an hour – 42 euros ($45.91) a day.

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“It’s like slavery,” Bah, an undocumented migrant worker, told Al Jazeera by phone. “All I want is to have a legal job, to pay taxes and become an independent man.”

This previously unimaginable reality could soon transpire amid the global coronavirus crisis, which has seen Europe grapple with the prospect of food shortages as its agricultural sector eyes collapse.

The Italian government is weighing whether to regularise some undocumented migrants, who are already working in the country’s agricultural and livestock sectors.

According to Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), there are up to 600,000 undocumented migrants.

“The problem we are facing is the one of the harvest,” Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said last week. “We need to bring out those in the black market, also for a safety issue.”

As well as workers from Africa, Eastern Europeans also work in Italy’s fields.

At the start of Italy’s coronavirus epidemic, which has so far killed almost 30,000 people, people from countries such as Romania returned home, risking financial instability as they attempted to protect their health.

And as asparagus crops grow tall, Italian farmers are desperately trying to fill a gap left by more than 200,000 seasonal labourers. Most of these temporary workers usually arrive from Eastern Europe and many were unable to travel due to lockdown restrictions, according to the country’s largest agriculture association Coldiretti.

As a result, Italian farms risk losing more than 25 percent of the harvest, according to Coldiretti.

In recent weeks, other western European countries including the United Kingdom and Germany, faced with similar crises, have flown in Eastern European workers to tend to their farms.

Ibrahim Bah, undocumented worker

Bah lives in Borgo Mezzanone, a rural ghetto that houses migrants like him whose asylum applications have been rejected and others who live in hope that theirs will be processed successfully.

Legally, they have no right to work and are therefore more likely to be exploited, paid under the minimum wage of about 50 euro ($55) for a 6.5-hour day.

Working on farms, whether documented or not, is often the only way for people like Bah to make a living, regardless of the coronavirus crisis.

“I am scared of getting infected, but how can I survive if I stay home?” Bah said.

Rights groups and unions are urging the government to act in settlements like Bah’s that lack running water and sanitation, warning they can easily become coronavirus hotspots.

Legalising these workers would reduce health risks and secure the harvest.

It would also limit the extent to which undocumented migrants are exploited under the “Caporalato” system, which profits from the irregular employment of agricultural workers for little pay.

“Exploitation emerges in situations of irregularities,” said Claudia Merlino, managing director of the Italian Farmers Confederation (CIA), which forwarded to the government a proposal for the amnesty.

“Regulating migrants [is] not just important to face the current time of emergency, but it also guarantees an opportunity to migrants on the longer term” as they will be able to establish and then keep a work relationship with the employer.

There are approximately 400,000 migrant workers in Italy’s agricultural sector. It is not clear exactly how many are undocumented, but the number is understood to be in the high thousands.

A CGIL-FLAI farmworkers’ trade union report estimated that as part of the black market, 16.5 percent do not enjoy any labour rights and 38.7 percent earn wages below rates set in the collective bargaining agreements.

Between 160,000-180,000 foreign workers lives in shantytowns, according to Jean-Rene Bilongo, head of migration policy and inequalities at the union.

“The number increased following Salvini’s decree when a mass poured into these confined spaces,” Bilongo said, referring to a 2018 security bill touted by former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini which cracked down on migration.

Since it was implemented, the rate at which asylum seeker applications were being denied rose from 55 to 80 percent, according to ISPI.

The amnesty currently being considered would guarantee a temporary residence permit to those who can prove a past, current or future work commitment.

However, while a residence permit would make migrants less vulnerable in front of the law, it would not necessarily translate into a less exploitative work environment.

“The regularisation can be a great opportunity, but it has to go hand in hand with the guarantee of workers’ rights,” said Concetta Notarangelo from the Idorenin NGO. “Or tomorrow we will get most of them with a residence permit, but stuck in the same situation.”

Some employers do not guarantee a regular and fair wage to workers, irrespective of whether workers have formal contracts or not, said Noratangelo, who provides support to labourers.

“Accessing a dignified salary, that would pave the way for a real process of integration,” said Notarangelo.

Some farmers exploit the system by “gifting” some of a crop picker’s hours to a family member or acquaintance in their records.

This family member or acquaintance can then declare the “stolen” working hours to the national social security agency (INPS) to gain state fund, such as welfare benefits, despite having never stepped foot on the field.

INPS estimates that some 50,000 “false workers” may have been registered through such scams in the agriculture sector, amounting to some 400 million euros ($437m).

Bah said his paycheck often shows reduced working hours, despite his day stretching from 4am to 6pm.

“What can I do? I can’t report to police. I don’t have any right, no evidence. But I prefer to go to work so that I’ll not be stealing, selling drugs, or robbing. That is why I do this job,” Bah said.

Looking further ahead at the supply chain, there are concerns that even if undocumented workers are regularised, the price processors and supermarkets pay for fruit and vegetables from Italy – and other European countries, will not rise enough to assure farmers they can compensate their workers properly.

An Oxfam report said prices paid by Finland’s biggest grocery retailer, the S Group, to a private-label supplier of tomato products in Italy fell 15-25 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Meanwhile, Italy’s tomato processors paid farmers 10 percent less for their raw tomatoes, while collective agreement wage rates had increased about 8 percent.

Oxfam said prices in the chain have become “divorced from the costs of ethical production”, adding that this dynamic increase the likelihood producers will continue to exploit workers.

“The regularisation would be a positive step, but it’s just a patch,” said Cesare Fermi, director of the NGO INTERSOS’s migration programmes.

“Farmers are strangled by the current economic system based on large-scale distribution, and migrants are the victims of it.”

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