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Missing farm workers in pandemic times: Is it really “the virus’s fault”? The view from Italy

A migrants’ protest in Calabria, Southern Italy

Note from LeftEast editors: this article is an extended translation by the author of a text, which initially appeared in Italian in Rivista “il Mulino”.

Two months ago, farmers’ organisations across Europe (and beyond) started to raise the spectre of ‘empty supermarket shelves’ due to the lack of seasonal labour for the harvest of crops. After a spate of contradictory statements, internal clashes and U-turns, the Italian government seems determined to proceed with an amnesty for undocumented migrants to solve the problem. Thick and heated discussion over the issue has animated this whole period, with farmers’ organisations and several politicians across parties pushing for ‘simplifications’ in labour regulations, that would have allowed laid-off workers, students, pensioners and the unemployed that currently receive benefits to ‘volunteer’ in the farms. However, in a pattern that keeps recurring across Europe, very few citizens have come forward to dutifully fill the gap, and despite resistance (especially from Lega and the Five-Star Movement), an amnesty is presented as the only viable alternative.

Yet, scratching the shallow surfaces of a very foggy debate, the mainstream narrative starts to appear grossly inadequate. From all sides (with politicians, unions and farmers’ organisations leading the way) alarming figures have been reeled: 370.000 workers are declared missing in the agricultural sector. Official statistics in hand, based on social-security records, this would amount to the entire contingent of foreign agricultural workers in the country. Of those, according to the data elaborated by Coldiretti farmers’ union labour official, who for the past few years has curated the section on farm labour in Italy’s most authoritative statistical yearbook on immigration,[1] about 130.000 are EU citizens (around 100.000 of whom are Romanians, with the other 30.000 including Bulgarians, Poles and Slovakians). Conservative estimates on the lack of migrant ‘manpower’ in the farming sector keep to a more cautious 150-200.000 figure. Yet, this is still an incredibly high count in relation to the alleged total, also considering that the yearly seasonal-labour quotas, issued by government decree to recruit farm labourers from outside the EU, are regularly unfulfilled. Given the availability of about 18.000 work visas annually, only about 3.500 were issued yearly between 2016 and 2018. Moreover, seasonal working permits that were about to expire were extended by government decree during the emergency lockdown (just like all other permits for non-EU citizens) and will probably be extended even further, until the end of 2020. But, as mentioned, and unlike most other Western European countries, where heavy reliance on seasonal labour migration through legal channels is the norm, Italian farmers have instead resorted to informal recruitment practices for decades.

What are, then, the reasons for such an allegedly vast gap between the demand and supply of farm labour this year? Without doubt, the fact that the adoption of measures to contain the pandemic in Europe and northern Africa coincided with the period when agricultural work should have resumed after the winter break played an important role in lowering the number of available farm workers in Italy. Those migrants who could more easily get back to their place of origin (i.e., besides EU citizens, people originating from countries nearby, provided of course that they had a valid permit) most likely got stuck in significant numbers in Morocco, Tunisia, Albania and Macedonia. The same is true for the few from West Africa and South Asia who had returned home for some months. But besides the ‘bottlenecks’ created by the closure of borders during the state of emergency, another series of elements must be considered, which, taken together, tell a different story from those the media usually feed us.

First of all, at the beginning of March, when countries such as Romania and Bulgaria adopted severe measures to control the incoming flows of emigrants returning home, media reports from both origin and destination spoke of a mass exodus. This is particularly the case for Romanians returning from Italy, the European country where they are recorded in the highest number (about 1,2 million people), and especially from the northern regions which, on the one hand, were most severely hit by the spread of the virus, and on the other are those hosting the majority of migrants. In essence, it appeared that many migrant workers could not swallow the idea of risking their life for a job (be it in the farming, construction or care sector, where they are most concentrated) which in the majority of cases is severely exploitative.

At the same time, such mass outflow confirms a tendency that, in the case of Italian agro-industrial districts, was already in place starting at least from 2016.[2] Since then, the number of migrant EU workers in the farming sector, that had swelled in the first decade of the 2000s following Eastern European countries’ accession, has been steadily decreasing, anticipated by Poles – the first to desert Italian fields, already from 2010.[3] Economic growth in the countries of origin, on the one hand, and the less-than-ideal conditions in which many were, sometimes literally, forced to work, on the other, are certainly to account for such shifts. As a matter of fact, albeit still a small fraction of the total, the number of non-EU workers who obtained a seasonal permit to work in the farms in 2019 has grown from previous years. One could speculate this is partially to compensate for the loss of EU farm workers, whilst also being an effect of the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on migration through the Central Mediterranean route, which was initiated in 2017 and reached its peak the following year. Indeed, already at the start of the previous agricultural season farmers’ organisations were lamenting the lack of workers as a consequence of the convergence of these two trends.  

Reinforcing the tendency of EU workers to flee Italian fields is the egregious diplomatic failure experienced by the Italian government and farmers’ associations, whose attempts to set up the celebrated ‘green lanes’ for seasonal agricultural labour sanctioned at EU level seem to have fallen on deaf ears. This failure stands in stark contrast to what happened with the UK and Germany, where several charter flights from Romania and Bulgaria have landed in the past weeks, filled with thousands of workers ready to harvest asparagus and other horticultural products. To be sure, despite the propaganda, in northern Europe labour conditions also proved to be  different from what was expected and promised.[4] However, in the UK and Germany, salaries are certainly better than in Italy, usually by twice the going rate (which in Italy is well below minimum legal standards in the majority of cases). Other considerations, to do with the spread of the virus and the country’s healthcare response, might have played a role in influencing workers’ choice, at least as far as Germany is concerned.    

The subjective dimension of workers’ increasing refusal of certain living and work conditions is echoed by another scenario, underlying the forthcoming amnesty  for those undocumented non-EU citizens who can prove they have some chance of getting hired as farm workers. Mainly from west and northern Africa, or southern Asia, an unspecified number already work in the Italian ‘green factories’ without any kind of protection, not even on paper. Irregularity in the sector is deemed to account for about 25% of the total labour force (possibly an underestimate), whilst the estimated total of undocumented migrants this year is thought to have reached 650000 individuals. Yet, it should not be forgotten (as the vast majority of commentaries does) that the proposal of an amnesty was not born with the pandemic. Cyclical recourse to this extemporaneous form of regularisation in the history of Italian migration policies (the first of seven amnesties to date took place in 1986) had halted in 2012, just a year after labour quotas were also terminated, except for seasonal work. De facto, the quota systemhad always amounted to an under-the-table regularization for undocumented migrants already in the country. The closure of such channels coincided with the period when the Central Mediterranean opened up to trans-Saharan migration, as a consequence of the fall of the Ghaddafi regime. Thus, what numbers of non-EU migrants were previously ensured by labour quotas were, since then and up to 2017, obtained through other, much more brutal routes.

With these shifts, that also followed the 2008 economic crisis, a period of legal void ensued, during which no channels for regularization existed for undocumented migrants (again an anomalyin Western Europe) aside from asylum applications, which anyhow are rejected in the majority of cases. In this scenario, the parallel swelling of slums – hubs for the recruitment of West African farm labour and a media favourite – went hand-in-hand with forms of protest and self-organization. Through the years, migrants confined to these spaces have demanded regularisation, housing, transport to and from the workplace and more generally the respect of labour standards. Of course, the legal right to stay is a precondition for the recognition of other guarantees.

The latest, glaring episode of struggle saw the contemporaneous blockade of the Port of Gioia Tauro, in Calabria, and of the Industrial Zone of Foggia, in Apulia, by hundreds of African farm workers, supported by some Italian allies, on 6 December 2019. They were requesting to confer with the Ministry of Internal Affairs on the issue of regularisation. A few days later, on 23rd December, and again on 15th January, speaking in Parliament, the Minister confirmed her intention to proceed with an amnesty. This also triggered the uncontrolled spread of unfounded rumours among non-EU migrants as to the alleged possibility of requesting regularisation already. If considering the coming amnesty  uniquely as a result of the demands of slum-dwellers-cum-farm-workers would be delusional, the role that these struggles have played towards it cannot however be ignored. Without doubt, the measures adopted are insufficient to guarantee the whole range of undocumented migrants, and in any case are inconsequential vis-à-vis the urgent need to radically rethink migration policies. Indeed, these shortcomings will likely inaugurate a new cycle of struggles. As a matter of fact, most amnesty decrees in Italian history have been accompanied by protest. The last regularisation, for example, was labelled a ‘mass swindle’ by many, who had to pay high fees and got their application refused, and led to harsh and even spectacular contestation, with some migrants in Brescia climbing a construction crane where they remained for over two weeks.

Hence, to go back to numbers which don’t add up, it should be clear from what was said above that current estimates, as much as government measures to face the lack of farm workers, demonstrate – if ever it was needed – how in Italy the farming sector rests on a vast proportion of undocumented and undetected labour. Only thus, and by acknowledging the role of longer-term acts of refusal and flight, can as high a number of missing workers as official estimates calculate be explained. In this respect, the forthcoming amnesty seems as much like a covert, unacknowledged response to years of struggle as a way to fill a labour gap, given that undocumented workers are already moving across the country and working the fields. Furthermore, the cynical auction-like game played in the media over figures highlights once more how the agri-food sector as a whole (despite being an important pillar of the Italian economy), together with immigration policies, do not currently rely on any form of structural planning. An ad-hoc regularisation scheme is certainly not going to change such state of affairs, but the demands of those concerned might, and in part they are already.  

Irene Peano holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is currently employed as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, within an ERC Project titled ‘The colour of labour: the racialised lives of migrants’ (PI Cristiana Bastos). She has also worked at the Universities of Bologna and Bucharest. Her main interests include migration and labour (particularly sex work and farm labour), especially from the point of view of subjectification and resistance in relation to patterns of containment and exploitation. She also investigates these through genealogical methods, focusing specifically on the afterlives of forms of forced labour and techniques of containment. Her research is founded on an engaged positionality and committed to the support of the struggles of those she works with.  

[1] Magrini, R. (2019). I lavoratori stranieri nel settore agricolo. In Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS (ed.). Dossier statistico immigrazione 2019. Rome: Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS/Immigrazione Dossier Statistico.

[2] Magrini, R. (2017). I lavoratori stranieri nel settore agricolo. In Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS (ed.). Dossier statistico immigrazione 2017. Rome: Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS/Immigrazione Dossier Statistico; Ibid. 2018, 2019.

[3] Caritas, Dossier Statistico Immigrazione 2011Caritas/Migrantes.

[4] For an overview, see e.g. Jokubas Salyga, ‘Why Migrant Farm Workers Are Living Four to a Caravan in a Time of Social Distancing’, JacobinMag 2nd May 2020.