News & Opinion


28-04-2022

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.


24-11-2021

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.)


15-11-2021

The brutality of Fortress Europe unmasked


25-10-2021


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


What do 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 is misinterpreted.

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.


30-09-2021

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.


03-07-2021

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 passing motorcyclist.

As an 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.

However, the 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.

Around half 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.

They have 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.

These 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.

On the 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.


24-06-2021

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.  


31-01-2021

Napier barracks fire in Kent revealed barbaric conditions in which the British government is holding hundreds of asylum seekers


14-01-2021

Ciao Ousmane is out now...

With a Foreword from Liz Fekete



30-10-2020

Seven people have died trying to cross the Channel this year.


08-09-2020

"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.


24-08-2020

Four shipwrecks in one week off Libya


16-06-2020

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.

12-06-2020

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?


07-06-2020

African workers across Italy showing the power of self-organisation in the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide

                                                               21-05-2020

                                         Migrant agricultural workers on one-day strike 

                                                                                                 Photo: Aboubakar Soumahoro

13-05-2020

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


12-05-2020

The terms of agreement on regularisation continued to be debated today, due to opposition from M5S. Main points of the draft


08-05-2020

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." 


The Italian government recently established that migrants' expiring residence permits are extended until the 15th of June, although it is clear that this wouldn't be sufficient to fill the labour shortages. Meanwhile, farmers' organisations, just as the rest of Europe, have asked for the establishment of "green corridors" to allow seasonal workers from Eastern Europe to be sent to work in Italy. 

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

Although Moussa tried to appear Zen-like with the occasional hostility towards him, he made sure he avoided going to places that he knew were "only for the locals". Like fellow workers from Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and other African countries, he chose to come to the "African quarter", the street corners of Via Podgora where several cheap Asian and Turkish eateries, kebab shops and convenience stores were. This is the corner where he and his friends hung out when waiting for work, or as he described, passa il tempo.

This quarter is where many migrant workers pass through and gather in town. When they first arrive in Foggia, this is one of the first places they visit - to get food and get themselves sorted out before travelling by bus out to the sprawling encampments in the countryside.

Since March, in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak, the "African quarter" has been quiet. Even the labour recruiters and middlemen who usually hang around here are absent. And the Western Union office that Moussa and his friends all frequented in order to send cash home, has no queues. Moussa and the others used to come here to use the free Wi-Fi and could stand around outside for the entire afternoon and enjoy the internet access that they didn't have in the rural area where they lived. They would charge their mobile phones here, too, with the help of the staff whom they got to know well. They used to come here and talk with people they knew from the two largest encampments, Gran Ghetto and Borgo Mezzanone. These street corners were their information hub where they exchanged news about life and work. This was where Moussa felt the safest in the city.

But now, no one dare venture out in the middle of a lockdown. No one has been allowed outdoors since mid-March. There were more than 600 people infected with Covid-19 in the province of Foggia in early April. Moussa and his friends could no longer visit town and the "African quarter" to get their basic food shopping from the Pakistani store there. They had to use the tiny convenience shop near where they lived on the outskirts - where they were given a ticket each time and queued to go into the shop one by one. Like the rest of Italy, they were not permitted any outdoor activity except this brief food shopping.

The restriction of movement was tough for Moussa and his friends because it meant that they couldn't go to work. Although the asparagus season was yet to start, there was always irregular farm work to do in March and early April. But not this year. It is true that many working-class Italians are in a work-less situation, too, while the difference is that migrant workers will never receive any state support and many have to rely on charity donations for food.

Meanwhile, Moussa and his friends are aware that fewer and fewer Africans are able to land in Italy since the Covid-19 outbreak. There were 241 landings in March 2020, according to the Interior Ministry - fewer than the 262 of March last year. Since the start of the outbreak, Africans rescued at sea had to go through a 2-week quarantine before landing. According to Borderline Sicilia, a Sicily-based activist monitoring group, the recent arrivals from the Ocean Viking in Pozzallo and from Sea Watch 3 in Messina have been treated poorly. The Borderline Sicilia report said: "The Interior Minister ordered the quarantine of the 276 migrants in the Pozzallo hotspot and also members of the Ocean Viking crew. Also, District President Musumeci requested that no one disembark from the ship - double standard for Sicilians and tourists arriving from the north by sea and air... At the same time, the mayor of Messina, Cateno de Luca, imposed a quarantine in the hotspot on the 194 migrants from the Sea Watch 3 rescue ship - not to protect them from the virus circulating through Italy, but for being considered possible carriers of the disease."

Now on 7 April, with a newly-issued decree, the Italian government has declared its seaports "unsafe" due to the outbreak and will not authorise the landing of rescue ships until the end of the health emergency (which may be at the end of July although that could be extended). This announcement was made after Sea Eye's rescue ship Alan Kurdi, the only one at work in the central Mediterranean, rescued 150 people who were left stranded at sea with no EU country wanting to let them dock.

In Foggia, Moussa continued to wait for work. This would normally be hard to imagine because the area of Borgo Mezzanone is one of the major agricultural regions in Italy. Each year, thousands of migrant workers come here to harvest asparagus in the spring and then tomatoes in the summer. Moussa would come here every spring, all the way from Turin, when he finished apple-picking work. He is a seasonal worker and has always tried to send money back home to support his three brothers ever since their parents passed away. During the off-peak season when there is no apple harvest around Turin, he would come to join his friends who were based in Borgo Mezzanone near Foggia city.

So that was how Moussa ended up in the makeshift encampment of Borgo Mezzanone, known as "Pista-Borgo Mezzanone", one of the eight informal encampments in the province. He found shelter there almost each spring. At least 500 African agricultural workers lived there at any one time with treble that number during harvest. There were no basic facilities there, no health care provided by any organisation, and no waste collection by the local authorities, which led to the area being surrounded by rubbish. Moussa was sharing a tiny shack with four friends. In adversity, they shared everything. They would go to Foggia and get their food provisions from a Pakistani shop. Back in the camp, they would keep any meat in the old communal fridge, rescued from a dumpster and powered by a shared mobile generator.

Their makeshift shanty town was located right next to an asylum reception camp (a CARA, Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers) that was set up in 2005 in a well-fenced ex-military compound making it look more like a prison than a reception centre. In fact, the shanty town itself was the product of evictions from this asylum camp that eventually became the country's third largest.

Ever since 2011, when many asylum seekers were asked to leave the CARA camp as they received their documents, without resources and social networks, they became homeless overnight. The only housing choice they had was to build their shacks on the land next to the asylum camp.

When the asylum camp closed down in 2012, many decided to go north to Germany to start all over again. Others stayed and join their predecessors in building their shacks in the makeshift encampment next door. They collected building materials, such as corrugated metal sheeting and bricks, from dumpsters and disused factory sites around. Some of them had good building skills and they were able to construct strong dwellings using only materials that the Italians had discarded. With their labour, they built a shanty town of their own from the scrap and leftovers of the town.

Many houses and shacks, including cafés, a garage and repair shop, a bike shop, and later a mosque and a church were all built along the old runway like a grand wide shanty town boulevard. Further along this boulevard were a row of accommodation blocks converted from toilet facilities. There were also container dormitories left over from the former reception camp and now being used by people in the shanty town. They stood out because they were of the same battleship grey colour as the dormitories inside the reception camp next door. Along the runway, the shanty town stretched for a mile or so. The flat concrete runway made it easier to build the houses, but when it rained, the site flooded quickly.

Over time, the shanty town drew in more and more people, most of whom had no place to go after closure of their asylum camps in the Puglia region as well as Naples, Rome, Milan and elsewhere. Around half the shanty town's residents had documents, the other half did not. Whatever their asylum and migratory status, they all needed work and there was plenty of work around here during harvest time.

As more people arrived, the shanty town community grew. Some people set up various stalls and provided basic services to fellow residents. There were stalls displaying shoes and clothes collected from bins in Foggia. A man from Ghana was selling shoes for a living here. He went to Foggia often, in order to collect just old shoes from the bins in the city. He would put them all in a bag and bring them back here, then, patiently, he sat cleaning and preparing them one by one. He then displayed them neatly in his stall. The stock took him several months to collect and prepare. A Nigerian man was running a bigger stall selling shoes, jeans and shirts, round the corner, and well-presented as they were, all his stock was from the city's bins, too. One of the football shirts on his display was an England shirt with "Shearer 9" on the back, which looked like it was from the 1990s - as everyone said, you could occasionally find some good stuff in the bins.

Another impressive innovation was a makeshift laundry a few doors from the shoe stalls. It consisted of a couple of old washing machines collected from a tip sitting whirring on wooden pallets. They had been repaired and were being reused here. There was a mutual-help principle that kept the community going: you offered your skills and helped others while helping yourself. Another Ghanian man, in his fifties, was a tailor back home and often offered to help fellow workers with mending their clothes. In return, he was paid 50 cents or so for each repair. It paid for his food.

In 2013, the asylum camp next door re-opened, under the management of the cooperative Sisifo, and had a capacity for 636 people. Despite it being notorious for its appalling management of the reception camp in Lampedusa, Sisifo managed to keep the contract for the CARA in Borgo Mezzanone by offering the cheapest bid. Under the management of the cooperative, overcrowding had always been a major issue.

Although the asylum camp was well gated and fenced, there was a small entrance at the rear which allowed people from the makeshift shanty town to enter. Many people, like Moussa, had friends inside. They would walk into the reception camp to use a shower - as there was only a water tap in their shanty town - and also recharge their mobile phones. The shanty town's proximity to the CARA had meant that certain basic facilities could be provided from inside the CARA to the encampment outside - electricity, hot water, toilets, and Wi-Fi. It worked the other way too: asylum seekers from the CARA could access things they were not provided in the shelter, such as prayer rooms and makeshift stores selling daily necessities, clothes, etc. People living in the CARA and the shanty town outside had been able to make these necessary exchanges and find ways to survive their conditions by supporting one another.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, however, facilities in both the shanty town and inside the CARA have been stretched to the limit. More workers came to seek accommodation in the shanty town, which meant a growing number of people using the facilities inside the CARA. The lack of a sufficient water supply in the shanty town couldn't be properly made up for by access to the CARA. Many workers have to rely on charity donations when they are available, for drinking water, let alone food, which they couldn't afford to buy as they couldn't go out to work.

The poor safety inside the shanty town led to one fire after another - In April 2019, a 26-year-old Gambian man was killed in his sleep in a late night fire in his shack. This young man had been rejected in his asylum claim a few months earlier and had to leave the asylum camp next door. Moussa often went on the same bus with him into town. He could do nothing but pray for the man's family.

On 4 February 2020, a 31-year-old woman from Nigeria was severely burned in a fire caused by gas explosion and died in the hospital four days later. For the society out there, this was "just another death by fire" that happened to people living in the ghettoes.

The local authorities had always intended to dismantle the shanty town, without providing the workers with suitable alternative housing. People stayed here because they had no choice. After the fire in April 2019, demolition began that summer. 74 shacks were taken apart and 130 people evicted. Some workers felt desperate enough to travel to Germany or France, to seek asylum there. Others like Moussa were more cautious about making such a move without resources. He and his friends managed to find temporary lodging with a friend who was living in an abandoned barn in a village an hour away from Foggia city. Nothing much was there, except a corner shop.

Those who remained in what was left of the shanty town of Borgo Mezzanone carried on working in the fields in the area. Migrant workers continued to arrive and build shacks or tents to sleep in, from mid-February, in preparation for the harvest this year. They were, of course, unaware that Covid-19 cases had started to appear in late February in northern Italy. By the time the disease spread in March, the number of workers has already reached over 1,300 in the shanty town.

During the lockdown, there was increased police control in the area around the shanty town. A mobile carabinieri station was set up and working in the village for several days.

The cross-over between the asylum CARA camp and the shanty town further stretched the capacity of the former. During the Covid-19 crisis, the asylum camp became an even more unhealthy and unsanitary place for the occupants. The risks of infection alarmed the authorities, which finally led to the facility - 18 housing units and 13 bathrooms - being shut down in March. Around 300 people have now been left to find their own housing.

Then, on the night of 28 March, another fire broke out in the shanty town next door, when more than thirty shacks were destroyed. Several people suffered minor injuries. Further demolition was inevitable, which came at the end of the month. The workers who lost their sleeping places here were then added to the homeless and destitute throughout the countryside, in the middle of the disease outbreak.

For Moussa, the waiting time is unbearable during the lockdown. He knows he has to stay put. The police are everywhere and he doesn't want to go against the rules. Besides, without documents, he fears he will not be able to access healthcare if he falls ill with Covid-19. The prospect of becoming ill on your own is the fear that keeps many people indoors. In this national health emergency, it is again those without formal immigration status who are always excluded - from medical care to any support measures. Unlike Portugal, there has been no indication from the Italian authorities that the regularisation of migrant workers - to ensure access to basic care and support - is something being considered at all.

At the same time, Moussa's fear of becoming ill alone will always be overcome by the fear of not being able to work and earn for his family. He must send cash home to put food on their table. He would, without hesitation, choose to go to work if work started right now. Many of his friends feel the same, given the immense pressure to support their families.

Whilst Italians self-isolate at home, African workers like Moussa have nowhere to call home except a temporary, overcrowded barn now occupied by dozens of friends and co-workers - they certainly do not have a balcony to sing on. When society continues to marginalise and exclude them, these workers still wait to pick the crops that need to be picked - and for little reward. When the asparagus harvest starts in mid-April, Moussa earns €3- €3.50 per hour, with the rate fluctuating slightly among farmers. This is the same agricultural pay level that has remained for him and his fellow African workers over the years. Despite there being a shortage of migrant labour from Eastern Europe due to the Covid-19 outbreak, African workers' are not finding themselves in a better bargaining position with their employers and their wages have never changed.

What stays fixed is the charge of €5 for transport from the gangmasters who organise ten workers in a team. Moussa has a local Italian gangmaster who often came to pick workers up and deducted the same transport money from workers no matter the distance travelled. The area is thick with these middlemen who organise and control the workforce. Moussa remembers them driving round the shanty town in their big cars, drawing attention to themselves. His middleman would pay him every five to ten days, depending on what he wished to do. By the end of May, the asparagus harvest will come to an end and many workers would stay on to pick tomatoes.


"Life goes on," as Moussa would say, even during the pandemic. So does their exploitation and exclusion.