Invisible in the Fields

Daniel Trilling

On 13 May, Italy’s government unveiled an economic support package that, among other measures, includes an amnesty for undocumented migrants who work on farms and in social care.

‘It’s true. I cried,’ the agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, who had proposed the amnesty, wrote on Facebook. ‘Because I fought for something I believed in from the beginning, because I closed the circle of a life that is not only mine, but that of many women and men like me who worked in the fields.’ Bellanova, who was born in the southern region of Puglia in 1958, began work as a day labourer on farms around Brindisi at the age of 15. She says she saw girls her age die from the harsh working conditions. She spent years as a trade unionist before being elected to parliament in 2006.

Most of the measures in the €55 billion ‘relaunch bill’ are aimed at supporting Italian citizens, but the proposals for undocumented migrants caused the most controversy. Leading figures in the Five Star Movement, the largest party in the governing coalition, opposed its inclusion. (Bellanova is a member of Matteo Renzi’s centrist Italia Viva, which split from the Partito Democratico last year.) Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right opposition Lega, threatened street protests if the plan went ahead. Bellanova said she would resign if her proposal was not accepted. It showed that ‘the state is stronger than the mafia and slave labour,’ she said, and would allow people ‘to regain their identity and their dignity’.

It will also help to prevent food from rotting in Italian fields this summer. Around 200,000 seasonal labourers, most of whom come from Eastern Europe, can’t travel at the moment because of Covid-19 restrictions. Other countries are facing similar problems: in recent weeks charter flights have brought hundreds of Romanian farm workers into the UK, and thousands into Germany. Belgium has given asylum-seekers greater access to its labour market, and Spain has made it easier for immigrants and unemployed people to work on its farms.

These measures are temporary. Italy’s amnesty gives people the right to apply for six-month work permits; there are an estimated half a million undocumented immigrants in Italy, many of whom work on farms, though the government has said it expects far fewer to be eligible for regularisation, because only those whose work permits have expired since October 2019 can apply. Many of the migrant workers who are badly paid, abused by gangmasters, and live in shanty towns without running water, will see no change.

On its own, the new policy does not solve a central problem: the food we eat is kept cheap because it’s harvested by a workforce that can be disciplined into accepting low wages and demeaning conditions. Immigration restrictions, and the prolonged states of limbo they encourage, makes that exploitation easier. But Bellanova’s amnesty does, for the moment, weaken a crucial component of the system.

Aboubakar Soumahoro is an Italian trade unionist, originally from Ivory Coast, who in recent years has become a prominent voice challenging the xenophobic drift of Italian politics. His union has called a strike for migrant farm workers on 21 May, to highlight the people excluded from the amnesty. ‘We are invisible to the government,’ he said in a video posted online a few days ago. ‘We will also be invisible in the fields.’