News & Opinion
During my research
for the book Angry White People,
Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), once said to
me that he "wasn't against all refugees", but the male migrants [his emphasis] who were at the centre of the "refugee
crisis" in Europe in 2015 were posing a threat to "our way of life". He
stressed that "they are all young men from the Middle East and Africa," adding
that they're bringing their different religion and culture to Europe,
"threatening our civilisation". His views reflect a gendered racialisation of
displaced people that we have encountered for a long time, not only from the
far-right but also the establishment and social institutions.
In truth, Robinson's perceptions of the Other, whether called migrants or refugees, aren't different from the "take back control" notions of Nigel Farage and the core of the government's Nationality and Borders Bill that has just become law.
Many of Robinson's supporters would be behind the Tory government's regressive asylum policies. At the same time, many Tory voters have no problem with Britain receiving Ukrainians fleeing the war. Tory politicians have set examples for their two-tier asylum system: welcoming white people who flee wars, while keeping the door tightly shut to displaced people from the Middle East and Africa. Tory MP Robert Jenrick has hosted a Ukranian mother and her two children in his Nottinghamshire home. Michael Gove, Housing and Communities Secretary, posed as a new-born humanitarian when he said "the UK had a history of supporting the most vulnerable during their darkest hours".
Meanwhile in Calais, people from Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, and many other countries known for their poor human rights records, continue to live in "jungles", i.e., self-built tent areas in woodlands. Many have been there for more than a year, having attempted to cross the Channel countless times. They depend on charity for food and have no means to sustain themselves. In Calais and Dunkirk, many people have reported harassment and violence from the police. Their violent evictions by the police happened regularly; I was caught up in one during my visit in 2017. I witnessed their destitution back then, and they are still leading the same life today.
Here are the two disturbingly contrasting scenes happening concurrently - one in the UK, where people welcome Ukrainian refugees into their homes, one in the "jungles" along the French coast, where (mainly male) asylum seekers from outside Europe squat in the woods and living lives in permanent limbo.
Then on 14 April, Boris Johnson announced that under the new Asylum Partnership Arrangement, people arriving in the UK irregularly or who arrived irregularly since 1 January 2022 may be sent to Rwanda on a one-way ticket to have their asylum claim processed and, if recognised as refugees, to be granted refugee status there. According to the British government, the scheme will apply mainly to undocumented single men, i.e., male migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
In exchange, the British government will provide up to £120 million to Rwanda. Asylum seekers are deprived of their agency, unable to seek asylum in a country of their choosing. Instead, they will be traded like human cargo.
While announcing the asylum deal, Johnson said Rwanda was "one of the safest countries in the world." Successful asylum applicants "will be supported to build a new and prosperous life in one of the fastest-growing economies, recognised globally for its record on welcoming and integrating migrants." This is despite Rwanda's appalling track record of extrajudicial killings, suspicious deaths in custody, arbitrary detention and torture of dissidents. In 2018, Rwandan security forces shot dead at least twelves refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo when they protested a cut to food rations, according to Human Rights Watch. Authorities also arrested and prosecuted over sixty of them on charges including "spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state." In fact, the UK had granted asylum to Rwandans who have fled the country, including four in 2021.
Britain's offshore asylum processing policy will be put into effect despite all those adopting the same policies having shown themselves to violate the most basic human rights: Australia and Israel, in particular. Australia's offshore detention regime on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, caused over eight years of immense human suffering, said Human Rights Watch. Twelve people have died since the policy began in 2013.
In 2013, Israel signed agreements with Rwanda and Uganda, to which it began sending Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Under this "voluntary departure" policy, the asylum seekers were given a choice to return to their country, accept payment of £2,700 and a plane ticket to east Africa or be put in jail if they stayed in Israel. By September 2017, 3,959 Eritreans and Sudanese left Israel under these arrangements. As it turned out, these asylum seekers were not granted protection in Rwanda or Uganda - many had their travel documents taken away on arrival in Rwanda, were prevented by threat from leaving the hotel they were staying, and didn't have the opportunity to apply for asylum. The situation forced some of them to escape and embark on a dangerous journey and eventually ended up in Europe. Very few asylum seekers who left Israel actually remain in Rwanda.
This background explains why people who are living in the "jungles" of Calais are staying put (and not attempting to cross the Channel) during the week after Johnson's announcement of the Rwanda asylum policy. Many Sudanese, for instance, believe being sent to Rwanda can mean torture or death.
Racism and the racial hierarchy of the Other is deeply embedded in the two-tier asylum system in Britain (and Europe). It has been the core of the public discourse and policy making on asylum. This hierarchy is a colonial legacy that sees the formerly colonised as the less worthy or undeserving human beings. The fact that the circumstances of displaced people can either be categorised politically or economically renders them not quite like "us" (i.e., not quite human). In this way, humanity is stratified into "humans, not-quite-humans, and non-humans", as Alexander Wehelyie, U.S. professor of African American Studies, put it. At the bottom of the racial hierarchy are the Africans who have been categorised as "economic migrants".
In this humanity ladder, Ukranians are being welcome into British communities (although having to deal with frustratingly difficult bureaucracy), whilst displaced people from the Middle East and Africa are shunned. For those small minority of people from outside of Europe who become accepted as refugees, there is always the perceived risk of security and the need to "integrate" them on that basis ("It's safer to integrate them," as is often phrased by policy-makers).It is time now to hold up a mirror and take a good look at Britain's asylum system. Perhaps Tommy Robinson isn't such an anomaly to society after all.
27 people drowned on their way to Britain today. Like all the people who had attempted to cross the Channel in this way, they had been displaced by a combination of circumstances such as conflict, poverty and climate change. Politicians on both sides of the Channel are blaming the smugglers and each other. Many journalists are still asking the same old question "why did they want to come here instead of applying for asylum in France?" Those in society who have always argued for and supported tougher border controls are shedding crocodile tears.
Aboubakar Soumahoro, worker and trade union activist in Italy, wrote:
"Esprimo profondo dolore e sentite condoglianze ai familiari e ai cari. Quando la morte (che distrugge, ruba e uccide la vita) bussa alle porte della nostra comunità umana lascia a tutti noi un dolore profondo perché ogni vita è altamente preziosa. Questi morti non sono conseguenza di una tragedia dettata dall'aleatorietà della vita, ma di un chiaro indirizzo politico basato sull'ideologia dei muri e porti chiusi. Questa precisa responsabilità politica tradisce l'idea di un'Europa solidale, equa e libera."
(I express deep sorrow and heartfelt condolences to family and loved ones. When death -which destroys, steals and kills life- knocks on the doors of our human community it leaves us all in deep pain because every life is highly precious. These deaths are not the consequence of a tragedy dictated by the randomness of life, but of a clear political orientation based on the ideology of closed walls and ports. This precise political responsibility betrays the idea of a united, fair and free Europe.)
Photo: farmer working, a village in Henan province, China / by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Xi Jinping's "common prosperity" campaign ignores the gravest inequality in China
liberal media commentators have in common with the "tankies"?
("Tankies" refer to Stalinists and a section of the left in the West who
romanticise China and consistently brush its human rights abuses under the
carpet.) It may surprise you, but they share a way of seeing China much more
than they would admit: both interpret Chinese government policies and actions
in terms of "liberal West" vs "authoritarian China" or
"civilizational China" and perceive China as offering itself as an alternative
to the values and order of the West. This is the framework by which the latest "common prosperity" campaign
Xi Jinping has called for China to achieve "common prosperity", in the run up to his third term in 2022. He outlined his vision at a meeting with the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs in August, and pledged to narrow income gap. This isn't about him returning to Mao's values, like the liberal press and the "tankies" might like to think. Xi was pragmatic and aware that the widening income gap would eventually threaten the legitimacy of his rule and wanted to avoid the "political polarisation" that he saw in Western countries.
The "common prosperity" campaign is really about expanding and widening China's growing middle-class (or "middle income group" as it is called in China), which has been a key national development strategy since the beginning of the century, or the "Chinese century" in Xi's own words.
On the level of personal ambition, Xi needs to be seen as "doing the right thing" and this political campaign is a clear attempt to secure his political legacy and future at the 20th Party Congress next year.
Expanding the middle-class has been one of the guiding principles for fulfilling Xi's "China dream", the ruling elite's nationalist politico-economic programme for "the realisation of the great revival of the Chinese nation". The "China dream" project is a natural outcome of China's opening-up to the international market economy (known as gaige kaifang, meaning reform and opening-up) under Deng Xiaoping from the late 1970s. Gaige kaifang has been characterised by economic liberalisation, waves of closure of state-run enterprises, massive privatisation, dismantling of public services, free reign for international capital and the anarchy of the market.
The current "common prosperity" campaign is an extension of this "China dream" ambition. As a guiding development strategy, "common prosperity" aims to meet the country's need to move from an export-led economy towards a consumption-driven one, which relies on a sizeable middle-class.
"Common prosperity", meaning the joint prosperity of social classes, was also the catchphrase of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of gaige kaifang and "capitalism with Chinese characteristics". In his words in the 1980s, let some people "get rich first" would help encourage economic growth and eventually achieve "common prosperity" for all. Under this "get rich first" ethos in the four decades that followed, China grew to have the world's second-highest number of billionaires with total wealth of $996 billion. More than a third of the global conglomerates are based in China.
The country's top richest 100 people - many of them closely linked to the state bureaucracy - have more wealth than the poorest two fifths of the population. While some got stinking rich, a large section of society was left behind and left to fend for themselves. As result of gaige kaifang, China became one of the world's most unequal societies.
Photo: A village in Henan province/ by Hsiao-Hung Pai
The income gap between classes is fundamentally tied in with the wealth gap between country and town, which widened like never before in the past forty years. City dwellers today earn more than three times as much as rural residents, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In the past four decades, the extremely uneven distribution of national wealth, coupled with corruption and the impact of economic liberalisation led to further impoverishment of the rural interior and resulted in the largest mass migration in human history - millions of villagers went to seek their livelihoods in urban areas.
The divide between the rural and the urban, the migrant workers and city residents, is the key divide that has characterised modern Chinese society. For the ruling elite, it is this divide that can disrupt the social order and threaten their rule. From the start, structures were put in place by the state to keep the rural population from integrating with the urban while keeping the rural serving the urban. Hukou (household registration system), set up in 1958, controls migration and institutionally separates rural from urban residency and their rights and entitlements. It excludes rural migrant workers who live and work in cities access to public services and education for their children. Socially and culturally, they are segregated, too, often derogatorily referred to as the "low-end population" (diduan renkou).
The ruling elite's need to control this migrating, "floating" rural population and its presence in the cities is the reason why, despite reaching nearly 286 million and making up more than a third of the country's working population, and despite being China's engine of growth in the past four decades, migrant workers are at the same time the most marginalised and discriminated group of workers.
In theory, if Xi wanted to tackle inequality or deal with social mobility in his "common prosperity" campaign, then this urban-rural divide and migrant workers' socioeconomic position in society and their marginalisation should and would be his priority. But the gravest inequality in China does not appear to be Xi's interest.
During the height
of the "common prosperity" talk, as China Labour Bulletin (CLB) reported on 29
September, workers attempted to jump off building for wage arrears of an IT
firm in Nanning, Guangxi province. On 7 October, thousands of migrant workers
gathered to protest in front of the Haining local government in Zhejiang
province against the murder of their co-worker Wang Qi. Wang Qi was owed wages
of 18,000 yuan (£2,000) by his factory employer in Haining and when demanding
his wages, he was tortured and set on fire. The Chinese media are unanimously
silent about his death as well as the subsequent workers' protests.
Sadly, workers' deaths have not been a rare occurrence in China in the past four decades. The everyday scenes of a Chinese city - "city of violence," as artist Ai Weiwei put it - are these rural migrant workers toiling away in sweatshops risking their health and safety without the guarantee of payment, and every now and then being abused and attacked when demanding their wages. I remember well the conversations with a migrant worker from Henan province who told me about the miner Zhang Haichao from his home province. He said: "We know that China is the world's largest coal producer, but do we know that a miner, by the name of Zhang Haichao, had to have his chest opened up to prove his occupational lung disease to expose cover-ups by his employer in order to receive basic compensation?"
This lasting second-class-citizen status of migrant workers is the key to why their number in China's cities has gradually decreased over the years pre-pandemic. Migrant workers' non-return to cities has been caused by the marginalisation and exclusion that they experience, which has dis-incentivised younger generations of migrants from following the footsteps of their parents and joining the workforce in large urban areas.
Migrant worker numbers declined further by 5.2 million (to 285.6 million) in 2020, according to National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Migrant workers bear the brunt of production disruptions; many didn't have jobs to return to and were left unemployed, as China Labour Bulletin (CLB) reported. Millions of them did not return to the cities after the pandemic.
For decades, migrant workers have earned half of what urban workers were earning. Apart from the low wages, analysts believe the trend of reverse migration will pick up in coming years because migrant workers cannot afford housing in cities and don't have access to healthcare and basic public services.
A migrant worker's lifelong struggle in a city also never earns them even a pension equal to city residents. In fact, the pension system, by design, discriminates against them. A migrant worker from a village who spent their life toiling in factories in cities would not get a pension from the cities where they worked but instead would receive a much lower pension from their birthplace village. Born rural, they are rural for life, and the pension is the ultimate stamp of this fixed class identity as peasants (nongmin).
For years, migrant workers in China's cities have fought for equality and took matters into their own hands, particularly in the 2010s, when waves of spontaneous industrial action took place across towns and cities. Young men and women workers, from the interior, defied state-run trade union organisations and pushed for independent workers' unions.
Even during the pandemic, migrant workers have fought against injustice: notably, delivery workers protesting and striking against wage arrears in Wunan, Jiangsu, Anhui and Shandong provinces, taxi drivers on strike in Hubei, and construction workers striking in Shandong. There were a total of 496 industrial actions across the country between April and September 2021, according to CLB.
Migrant workers expect those at the top talking the rhetoric of "common prosperity" to address their grave inequality and marginalisation in society. But their anger and frustration have been ignored.
Today, China is the world's second highest spender on arms after the US, and has a defence budget in 2020 three times that of the UK. Xi knows how to ramp up nationalism and promote his "China dream" project. All the while, social infrastructure in the country's vast rural hinterland remains under-developed and the lack of a social safety net continues to compel many villagers to leave home to eke out a living in the cities, despite their second-class status there.
Whilst the "common prosperity" campaign continues to be loudly broadcast far and wide, migrant workers cannot wait for the ruling elite to end their misery, and hopefully will return to the pre-pandemic, even higher levels of protest and industrial action soon.
Another loss of life. A worker was killed in a terrible fire that burned down the largest migrant encampment in Campobello, west Sicily. His name is Omar Baldeh. Numerous fires such as this have taken away lives and destroyed the only living spaces for migrant agricultural workers across Italy.
An olive worker sent his videos filmed on the night of the fire and the day after. He wants the world to see what happened.
A young, fit
worker of 27 went to pick tomatoes in the fields under the midday sun on the 24th
of June. He worked in the 40-plus-degree heat for hours without a break, without
shade. He felt unwell as he finished work and got on his bike to go home. But
he never made it home. That evening, he was found dead on the roadside by a
Italian, if you read this and were told that this worker was named Matteo or
Mario, you would be shocked and ask "how could it be possible". There would be
newspaper reports and in-depth stories written about Matteo or Mario and how he
came to this tragic end. Some of you would go on protests and demand justice
for him. Society could erupt in such anger that those in power would have to do
something to prevent a revolt.
young worker who lost his life isn't a Matteo or Mario. His name was
Camara Fantamadi. He came from Mali and arrived in Italy only two weeks before
his death. He died because he was a migrant worker - and in particular, because
he was a sub-Saharan African migrant worker.
the workforce in Italian agriculture - close to half a million people - are
migrant workers. Workers' exploitation is stratified: sub-Saharan Africans -
most of whom have been through the asylum system - are right at the bottom of the hierarchy regarding working
conditions. For instance, the off-season pay rate among sub-Saharan African
workers is €15-€20 per day, the lowest
among all agricultural workers.
been positioned as "outcasts" in Italian society. They are casual workers in
the fields, consumers in the shops, but nothing else. They are not seen or
treated as part of local community and society but are kept away and
agrarianized (moved from urban centres to the countryside). The 21st-century
segregation of Europe drives them to live in desperate and often dangerous
conditions in rural ghettoes. This segregation ensures that they have no
protection at work and are the most exploited group in Italian agriculture.
outcasts have enabled Italy's agriculture to produce most of Europe's fruit and
vegetables. The modern history of Italy's agriculture since the 1970s is also the
chronicle of injuries and deaths of many migrant workers. Yet these injuries
and deaths are never properly investigated, let alone compensated. Migrant
workers' deaths have always been treated as collateral damage.
evening when Camara Fantamadi's body was found, the news of his
death circulated in the social media among Italy's African worker communities.
There was immense sadness and anger, but no shock. Because if you are a migrant
working in Italy, you are bound to hear of death and injury to your co-workers
so often that it is part of your reality. As a segregated people, you know your
lives don't matter to society. You could lose your life in the fields where you
work, or in the rural encampments where you live, or in the streets where you
walk and ride your bicycle. You could lose your life as result of your daily
exploitation and the permanent institutional and societal racism in which you
are immersed and trapped. Segregation is killing you.
The farm in Tuturano
in Brindisi, Puglia, where Camara Fantamadi worked, is no different to other
agricultural workplaces in Italy, in terms of appalling conditions and minimal
pay. Caporali, i.e. the middlemen or
gangmasters, are only the first layer in the chain of exploitation. What has
kept the exploitative work regime intact for decades are the bigger structures:
agricultural enterprises and corporate interests that operate the stratified
exploitation to increase profits, hand in hand with multinational retailers
that squeeze profits and keep prices down along the chain, and the political
elite and their institutions that have enabled a corrupt reception system and the
arrangement where migrants toil in exploitative agriculture, which the elite
are only too happy to continue with. While vilified as society's problem in the
discourse of the "migrant crisis" of the past decade, migrant workers bear the
brunt of Italy's worst working conditions and their devastating consequences.
Following Fantamadi's death, the
authorities in the Puglia region announced that outdoor farm work during the
hottest hours of the day, between 12.30pm and 4pm, will be banned. But will it?
Italy has no shortage of labour laws and regulations, but it is implementation
of these laws that is the problem. Many people in the African communities
across Italy have expressed doubt that such a ban would be realised in this
wildly unregulated sector - and agriculture in southern Italy in particular.
Italy's migrant workers don't need more
tokenistic gestures or gap-filling solutions. Until institutions and society
change their approach fundamentally and stop treating migrants as outcasts, any
talk of change will only be lip service - and more deaths of migrant workers
will surely continue.
Camara Fantamadi, a 27-year-old worker from Mali, died after picking tomatoes under the scorching sun. He felt dizzy after finishing his four-hour shift, which began at midday, at the farm in Tuturano in Brindisi province. He collapsed and died as he cycled home.
Outdoor farm work during the hottest hours of the day, between 12.30pm and 4pm, has been banned in the region of Puglia in southern Italy following Camara Fantamadi's death.
Napier barracks fire in Kent revealed barbaric conditions in which the British government is holding hundreds of asylum seekers
"Waves of impunity: Malta's human rights violations Europe's responsibilities in the Central Mediterranean", a report by Amnesty International
"Malta is stooping to ever more despicable and illegal tactics to shirk their responsibilities to people in need. Shamefully, the EU and Italy have normalized cooperation with Libya on border control, but sending people back to danger in Libya is anything but normal," said Elisa De Pieri, Regional Researcher at Amnesty International. "EU member states must stop assisting in the return of people to a country where they face unspeakable horrors."
From the beginning of January to 27 August 2020, 7,256 people were "pulled back" to Libya by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard, which was often alerted of the presence of boats at sea by airplanes engaged in Frontex and other EU operations.
Aboubakar Soumahoro, trade unionist, went on a hunger strike and took a proposal to Conte. He said: "We demand that the government listen to us and the cry of pain from us invisible and excluded workers. I'll stay here until the government gives us clear answers on three points: (1) Agricultural chain reform; (2) Launch of a National Labour Emergency Plan; (3) Change of migration policies.
This morning, Mohamed Ben Ali, 37-year-old laborer, died in a fire in Borgo Mezzanone, an encampment in rural Foggia, Italy. Four had died in the past year and a half. How many more have to die before white supremacy can even be recognised for what it is?
African workers across Italy showing the power of self-organisation in the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide
Migrant agricultural workers on one-day strike
Photo: Aboubakar Soumahoro
M5S backed down and an agreement was finally reached between parties and will be included in the relaunched decree. The number of regularised workers is estimated to be around 200,000, according to interior minister. Terms of regularisation/Main points here
The terms of agreement on regularisation continued to be debated today, due to opposition from M5S. Main points of the draft
More workers reported from Foggia that they have already been sent out by their gangmasters (caporali) to work in the fields, without contract, like during each harvest. Meanwhile, the government is divided on the issue of regularisation. Due to opposition from the M5S, the duration of the temporary residence permit for regularised workers could end up being only three months.
06-05-2020 Hsiao-Hung Pai reports
From outside the train window, after passing thousands and thousands of white plastic-covered polytunnels - the greenhouses in which tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables and fruits are grown, Vittoria comes into view. Its train station used to be a busy place every spring. Workers would wait for local pickups in the open square outside, named after Vittoria Nenni, an Italian anti-fascist who died in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. This was where rows of long-distance coaches parked up. From 2007 when Romania joined the EU, up until the Covid-19 lockdown this March, these coaches have travelled between Sicily and the impoverished regions of Romania, bringing the much-needed agricultural workers upon whom the province of Ragusa, Sicily, depends.
Photo: Greenhouses, province of Ragusa, Sicily/by Hsiao-Hung Pai
The above photos: Greenhouse, province of Ragusa; Vittoria station/by Hsiao-Hung
The above & photo on the right: Workers' clothes, greenhouses, province of Ragusa; Hsiao-Hung talking with farmers/ by Dave Barkway
Photo: Greenhouse, province of Ragusa/ by Hsiao-Hung
A few kilometres outside Vittoria, farmers hired groups of Romanians, whom they called "best workers", to pick tomatoes in greenhouses the size as football pitches in the spring. The large tomatoes earn a farmer €1 to €2 per kilo. In the greenhouses for aubergines - Each kilo of these would earn €2; each crate €20. As all the farmers would say, the cost of greenhouse production had increased while competition had driven prices down. What they omitted to say was that this all had led to further squeezing of workers' wages. In 2019, some of the Romanian workers had decided to join their families working in Britain. Most of them had gone by bus from Vittoria, all the way to Coventry to work in the chicken-processing factories, for relatively higher wages.
Normally, farmers here also hire Sub-Saharan African workers, for a lower rate than the Romanians: €25 a day, whether they have a residence permit or not. Most of them are asylum seekers from the reception shelters. During the lockdown, however, many African workers are unable to work due to the strict control of movement. Not far from Ragusa, there are currently around 300 African workers stuck in the appalling living conditions inside the tent city of Cassibile - they cannot go to the fields or greenhouses due to the movement control and their lack of documents.
This province has been one of the main destinations for Romanians, the largest group of agricultural workers in Italy, numbering around 113,000. By late 2019, there were around 30,000 Romanians living in Vittoria - including those without residence permits - half of this town's entire population.
Many Romanian workers come from Iași, the second largest city in north-eastern Romania near the border to Moldova. It's a university town with a population of 500,000, described by most Romanians as "having nothing going for it". With the economic decline, the average working-class monthly income was under €250.
Some Romanians came for the harvest season, but many others ended up staying and settled in Vittoria, Ragusa and the surrounding towns. Most of them work in the vegetable and fruits greenhouses, without contract, for an average of €30 a day. They are the workers of the EU periphery with no rights and no labour protection. For farmers here, employing Romanians also poses less risk of breaking the law by hiring undocumented migrants from outside the EU. They are employed en masse, and when they settle here, they become a reliable army of workers ready to tolerate the sweltering heat and long hours' backbreaking work in the greenhouses for little reward.
During the lockdown, most farms in the province have tried to survive the labour shortage. Farms that grow only flowers, however, have been badly affected, as non-food retail has been closed during this period of time.
Although travel restrictions across Europe mean that Romanian and Eastern European workers are no longer arriving to work in the fields in Italy during the lockdown, many farmers in this province are able to get harvest work done by using their "house workers", i.e., Romanian and other migrant workers who live nearby and upon whom they've depended for years.
Visiting greenhouses and talking with farmers, province of Ragusa, Sicily/ by Hsiao-Hung
The farming communities across the country say they have been hit hard during this pandemic. Not only aren't Romanian and Eastern European workers arriving to harvest the crops, but the internal lockdown and restricted movement between regions in Italy also means that African workers - the most exploited workers in Italy - can't always access farm work.
Photo: Asparagus harvest, province of Foggia/by Alsane
The minister of agriculture Teresa Bellanova, who left the PD to join former prime minister Matteo Renzi's Italia Viva party, has called for regularisation of undocumented workers "in order to get the economy moving again". She asked that these workers in agriculture and the care sector be regularised immediately with temporary residence permits of six months renewable for another six months.
Under Bellanova's request under Cura Italia bis decree, tens of thousands of migrants could be regularised. "75% of the workers [to be regularised] are migrants, mainly Africans," she said. "Either we get on with the harvest or the products will rot in the fields. Nobody is stopping Italians to offer themselves as pickers, but the truth is that they don't want to do it."
According to the ministry of agriculture, the Covid-19 crisis has created a shortage of between 250,000 and 270,000 workers in Italy. As the harvests of asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, tomatoes and melons are underway, something has to be done urgently, said Coldiretti (National Confederation of Agricultural Producers). Otherwise, 40% of agricultural products might go to waste. This will obviously impact hugely on Italy, being Europe's third largest agricultural sector in terms of overall value, worth £56.6 billion in 2019.
In this context, the regularisation of migrant workers emerged as a national debate once again. Many civil groups, NGOs and trade unions argue for regularising the country's undocumented migrants. Unions said that regularisation of migrant workers in the Sicilian countryside is now "an unavoidable necessity".
Photo: Asparagus harvest, province of Foggia/by Alsane
It is estimated that there are over 600,000 undocumented migrants in Italy. Apart from those working in agriculture, tens of thousands among the one million migrant domestic workers are also irregular, including over 165,000 domestic and care workers from the Philippines, most of whom are working without contracts. Their informal immigration status means that many of them were easily dismissed by their employers at the beginning of the pandemic outbreak.
Amnesty programmes have always been introduced on gap-filling, economic grounds, and in Italy, they have cut across the political spectrum. The largest amnesty was under the centre-right government in 2002 when nearly 700,000 migrants were regularised just after its Bossi-Fini law was enacted. In 2008, Roberto Maroni, the interior minister of the hard-right Northern League (the predecessor of the League today), proposed a law penalising illegal immigration as a criminal offence. Following the proposal, a public debate about "saving" the "useful" migrant care workers from this new law resulted in a carers rescue decree, a government ordinance which led to around 300,000 migrant care workers being regularised in 2009.
The same gap-filling approach has been behind the government plan for regularisation. The earlier result was the opportunistic draft proposal on regularisation, which only applies to migrant workers in agricultural, livestock, fishing and aquaculture sectors. Migrant workers, i.e., the essential workers, in domestic and care work as well as the logistics sector were all excluded. Currently, the draft decree also stipulates that those workers whose applications are accepted will obtain a temporary resident permit that lasts only until the end of 2020, for accessing work. Campaigners are asking, "Why limit the residence permit to one year, only for the period of the coronavirus crisis?"
Behind the call for regularisation among many civil society groups is the same mindset which evaluates a migrant's place in society based on their economic input and contribution. It treats migrant workers and their labour as a commodity to be exchanged and bargained for. Market value should not be the basis for demanding a regularisation. During this pandemic, workers' irregular status means that they couldn't access support programmes like those provided by municipalities, or even basic health care services. It also means that they couldn't work in the fields without extreme exploitation.
The call for regularisation should be based on migrant workers' interests and need for basic rights - such as rights to housing and to be free from racial discrimination, exclusion and exploitation. Ultimately, regularisation is insufficient in addressing the workers' interests and needs. The ills go so much deeper - into the heart of society and institutions that have long been penetrated by racism and racial inequality. A quick-fix decree or one-off amnesty will not protect migrant workers from the impact of this crisis nor will it guarantee protection in the long term.
12-04-2020 Hsiao-Hung Pai reports
African workers in Puglia, Italy, under lockdown
During his time waiting for work in the spring, before the asparagus harvest started, 21-year-old Moussa's daily routine was to come by bus to the city of Foggia. He would put on a scarf and a woolly hat to keep warm, and off he went. He needed to be away from the Borgo Mezzanone area where he lived with fellow migrant workers, to release the stress of each day - the stress caused by the permanent lack of basic facilities in the overcrowded barn and the constant need to cope. He told his friends that living this way was giving him headaches. He needed the space, even just a bus ride away, in Foggia. Moussa was always one of the first to get on the bus to town.
But the city wasn't stress-free. Moussa, originally from Mali, had to be cautious where he spent his time. Across town, he was familiar with the stares from locals. He was all too aware of his social position and where Italian society placed him. In Foggia, African workers often experienced racism in public spaces. In sandwich bars and cafés, they would often be given unwelcoming glances or be glared at by staff and customers who were used to the image of Africans working in the fields but not Africans sitting in a café.
Photo: "African quarter", Foggia, Puglia / Hsiao-Hung Pai