Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Italy's invisibles: migrant fruit pickers robbed of all rights

  • Migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011 (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Under Italy's eight-week-long coronavirus lockdown, the journey of fruit and vegetables from farm to table came under scrutiny thanks to migrant rights activist Aboubakar Soumahoro.

As undocumented migrants working in the agricultural sector suddenly became labelled as "essential" during the pandemic, Soumahoro shone the spotlight on the exploitative conditions under which they work.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The Covid-19 emergency in Italy highlighted the country's reliance on hundreds of undocumented migrants picking fruit and vegetables in the fields.

With few seasonal labourers able to enter the country and Italians unwilling to take on the jobs, migrant workers became fundamental to keeping afloat the agricultural industry.

In May, the Italian government recognised migrant farmworkers by offering applications for six-month temporary working permits. However, the policy was criticised by NGOs for being an economic strategy to protect the agricultural sector rather than a move motivated by human rights.

At the same time, migrant union leader and activist Aboubakar Soumahoro began forcing Italians and the government to confront the inhumane treatment of the "invisible" workers now recognised as essential for their country.

Soumahoro, 40, travelled from the Ivory Coast to Italy at the age of 19 and began work picking crops in the fields.

However, he had greater ambitions and enrolled for a sociology degree at the University of Naples, graduating with top marks. He is now the spokesperson for the migrants' struggle and has recently founded the Lega dei Braccanti, a union of migrant labourers making a stand for their rights.

During the coronavirus emergency, Soumahoro travelled around the country posting videos on social media exposing the exploitative pay, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of access to healthcare of migrant workers.

The Invisibles

The plight of these migrants was captured in the documentary The Invisibles, by Italian filmmakers Carola Mamberto and Diana Ferrero.

In the midst of the pandemic, Soumahoro was filmed visiting the farmworkers' makeshift camps, defying lockdown, and delivering food and protective clothing to the workers forgotten by the government.

Despite their sudden reclassification as "essential", migrant workers have been exploited for years in a system of illegal employment called "caporalato" in Italian. The documentary described it as "modern slavery" while Soumahoro said: "We fieldworkers are crushed under the boots of our slave masters."

Under this system, the migrants can work 14 or 15-hour days for as little as three or four euros an hour. Without contracts, they have no access to healthcare or resident rights. In their camps, they rarely have potable water and people live packed together.

Visiting them under coronavirus lockdown, Soumahoro reminded viewers that "social distancing is a privilege."

While "caporalato" is causing hundreds of migrant workers to live in inhumane conditions, Soumahoro calls the slave masters "one tree in a forest."

The real enemies, he says, are "large retail chains, which from the top forces low prices on tomatoes and citrus fruit on farmers who, in turn, squeeze the workers."

"It's the big corporations that hold the power in the food chain," he told the film-makers.

The migrants, nicknamed "braccianti", or pair-of-arms, want their vital role in the food chain to be recognised legally and socially. As Soumahoro says in the film: "If the workers lack dignity and rights, the food they provide is virtually rotten."

Braccianti

In the documentary, the workers chant: "We are human beings, not arms!".

Soumahoro also calls on Italy to: "Legalise all human beings, not because it's convenient, but because it's the state's responsibility."

And with the coronavirus emergency revealing the precariousness of Italy's agricultural system, Soumahoro's message is gaining traction.

Pope Francis has encouraged "turning this crisis into an opportunity to put front and centre the dignity of a human being and the dignity of work."

Soumahoro's fight is also forcing Italy, more generally, to acknowledge and rethink its frequently discriminatory and intolerant attitude towards migrants.

But with anti-immigration rhetoric from Italy's right-leaning politicians as strong as ever, Soumahoro's fight is far from over.

EU mulls new system to check illegal pushbacks of migrants

The European Commission says it may create a new system to monitor push backs by EU states. The announcement follows weeks of dithering by the commission, which has refrained from condemning abuse by Greek and Croat authorities, despite mounting evidence.

New Greek rules stigmatise NGOs working with migrants

New rules in Greece single out NGOs that work with refugees and asylum, in what the Athens government say is a bid to create greater transparency. But refugee groups say the rules are discriminatory and follow an anti-NGO pattern.

Opinion

Italy's return to statism spells trouble for the eurozone

There are profound questions about whether the windfall of cash from the EU coronavirus recovery fund will truly help Italy recover or whether it will cause more problems than it solves, for Rome and the rest of the eurozone.

EU Commission mulls police access to encrypted apps

The European Commission has not ruled out allowing police access to encrypted services. Instead, it says a balance needs to be found to protect rights while at the same time offering some leeway to law enforcement.

News in Brief

  1. Hungary gives initial ok for UK and Russian vaccines
  2. Russia files for Sputnik vaccine registration in EU
  3. Destruction and three deaths in Madrid explosion
  4. Liberals kick out Lithuanian MEP for homophobic jibes
  5. Air pollution killing thousands of Europeans a year
  6. First migrant tragedy of 2021 claims 43 lives
  7. Train revival needed to meet EU climate goals
  8. NGOs shame Monaco for persecuting UK whistleblower

Opinion

Rule-of-law deal: major step for Europe of values

At the very moment when an incumbent president across the Atlantic was carrying out staggering attacks on the foundations of democracy, the European Parliament obtained a historic agreement to protect the rule of law in Europe.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. US returns to climate deal and WHO, as EU 'rejoices'
  2. Big tech: From Trump's best friend to censorship machine?
  3. Turkish minister in Brussels to discuss new migrant deal
  4. EU leaders to discuss vaccine certificates
  5. On Erdoğan and Europe's 'ontological' choice
  6. MEPs call to halt Russia pipeline over Navalny arrest
  7. EU targets vaccinating 70% of adults by summer
  8. Portugal pushes to start delayed 'future EU' conference

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us