Thursday

29th Sep 2022

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 adding Bahamas to tax-haven blacklist

The EU is adding Anguilla, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos Islands to its blacklist of tax-havens, in what some have called a "fig-leaf" exercise.

Opinion

What von der Leyen's 'State of Union' didn't mention

Ursula von der Leyen barely noticed that European democracy is under attack not only from external threats, but from within. Two of the world's leading autocratic countries are EU member states.

News in Brief

  1. EU to ban Russian products worth €7bn a year more
  2. Denmark: CIA did not warn of Nord Stream attack
  3. Drone sightings in the North Sea 'occurred over months'
  4. Gazprom threatens to cut gas deliveries to Europe via Ukraine
  5. New compromise over EU energy emergency measures
  6. 15 states push for EU-wide gas price cap
  7. EU: Nord Stream explosions 'result of a deliberate act'
  8. EU okays €21bn Covid-recovery funding for Italy amid concern

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. The European Association for Storage of EnergyRegister for the Energy Storage Global Conference, held in Brussels on 11-13 Oct.
  2. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  3. European Committee of the RegionsThe 20th edition of EURegionsWeek is ready to take off. Save your spot in Brussels.
  4. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries

Latest News

  1. Russian ideologue and caviar on latest EU blacklist
  2. Netherlands tops EU social safety net for the poor
  3. New EU rules to make companies liable for their AI failures
  4. Can King Charles III reset the broken Brexit relationship?
  5. Meloni's navy-blockade plan to stop Libya migrants 'unlikely'
  6. Underwater explosions were detected near Nord Stream leaks
  7. EU countries stall new pesticide rules, blame Ukraine war
  8. The UN's Uyghur report must push EU into China sanctions

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us