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When the invisibili become essenziali: Migrant workers’ rights in Italy during the pandemic crisis

(Margaret) Asia _ Asher Photo_1.jpg

The original images and texts are the intellectual property of Mauro Biani © 2003-2020, available here and reproduced unedited under the creative commons BY-NC-ND 2.5 IT license.

In Italy recently the public debate has focused on the necessity of state interventions to manage the shortage of migrant workers in the agricultural, domestic, and care work sectors. Workers who this year, due to the closing of the borders in light of the pandemic, cannot lend their labour force to these industries. In order to avoid the labour shortage, the government has decided to proceed with the regularisation of a certain number of sans papiers, undocumented migrant workers, already present in Italy. Ad-hoc regularisations have already been applied in Italy with mixed results. This article analyses the new law decree on regularisation introduced in Italy during the COVID-19 crisis, which subsumes human rights protections for sans papiers to the economic imperatives of labour market needs.


Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova claimed the measure was an opportunity to be seized, in the name of legality and respect for human rights. Yet the new law decree seems to be in line with a more utilitarian logic, oriented towards the preservation of productive sectors at risk. Apparently, those who up until now have been invisible, neglected, and forgotten have suddenly become essential, at least in the numbers necessary to provide for the needs of the labour market. In this case, the irregular workforce present in Italy is more than sufficient to meet these needs: according to estimates, the sans papiers are in total about 600,000 persons. 

The new regulations are contained within article 103 of Law Decree no. 34/2020, entered into force on 20 May 2020. The sectors around which the new legislation revolves are the agricultural, domestic and care work precisely because in these one finds the highest rates of non-citizens employed seasonally, whether irregularly or regularly. Given this fact, it is therefore necessary to make some specific considerations regarding the norm’s operation in practice. The regularisation is possible in two ways: firstly, it can be the employer who requests regularisation of a sans papier, previously employed irregularly, or by establishing a new regular contract. In this case, the sans papier will obtain a residence permit for work purposes. Secondly, it can be the sans papier themselves who request regularisation: in this case, the subject obtains a specific temporary residence permit for six months, which they may then convert ⁠–⁠ if they meet certain requirements – into a residence permit for work. 


Considering the political and emergency context within which this norm has been introduced, it is, firstly, an exclusionary procedure: not all employers have access to the regularisation process, and not all sans papiers can obtain it either. The aim is clearly to limit applications; moreover, the legislation was created to meet only one specific demand, that of a certain number of workers needed in the sectors now at risk. Secondly, the norm has a specific temporality: regularisations can only be requested in a definite period and, as illustrated above, they will also have a limited duration. Due to the fact that obtaining a residence permit depends to a large extent on the possibility of stipulating ⁠– in only six months ⁠– a formal employment contract, migrants are in fact likely to be willing to accept worse working conditions to gain formal documents. This limited timeframe of access to the regularisation process may consequently lead to greater vulnerability of migrant workers and contribute to reproducing power dynamics in which it is the employer who determines all the conditions, taking advantage of the precariousness of the workers. Thirdly, though it is true that some sans papiers will have the possibility for a temporary reprieve from their irregular status, it is also true that their exploitative working conditions will not change. The legislation in fact refers only to the employment contract and therefore to some implicit guarantees, as a certain minimum wage, but this is clearly not sufficient in the sectors considered here. Numerous studies have documented the exploitative working conditions in the agricultural sector as well as in the domestic and care sectors: labourers’ exploitation is the norm. The issue is therefore not only about regularisation, which is certainly necessary. In the new legislation what is not taken into account are the already precarious conditions of workers in these specific sectors, strongly influenced by different forms of oppression, where gender, race and citizenship status have a constitutive role in shaping the forms of work. 

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In conclusion, there have been numerous responses to the law decree, but the only voices worth listening to at the moment are those of the sans papiers themselves, thousands of people made ‘invisible’, who are raising their voices in protest. The claims made by the invisibili are clear: this is not just a question of work and it is not just about this specific situation. Aboubakar Soumahoro, a trade unionist with the USB Agricultural Workers’ Coordination and spokesman for the #nonsonoinvisibile (‘I am not invisible’) campaign, makes clear that under the new legislation a human being has the right to exist not because they ‘are’, but because they ‘do’, something useful. Any reform must go beyond the latest discriminatory norm which promises temporary regularisation only for those who work, and only in certain sectors. There is therefore the need to take into account the recognition of the legal rights, freedom and autonomy of all the precarious, migrant and non-migrant, regardless of their employment in the sectors now in ‘crisis’. The possibility of being regularised – because at a particular time production needs are otherwise impossible to satisfy – risks subordinating what should be inviolable rights, such as those to work, to a basic income, to live in decent living conditions and to access healthcare, to the vagaries of the market.

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Asia Della Rosa

Asia is a master's student in the Ethnic and Migration Studies Programme, at the Institute for Research in Migration, Ethnicity, and Society - REMESO at Linköping University, Sweden. She is a graduate of the Political Sciences, International Relations, and Human Rights programme at the University of Padua. She is interested in gender, class and migration, with a particular focus on intersectional analyses of migrants' resistance movements in Italy. Asia is a passionate anti-fascist, feminist activist and worker for workers rights.

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Asher Goldstein

Asher is a doctoral student at the Institute for Research in Migration, Ethnicity, and Society –REMESO at Linköping University, Sweden. In his master’s thesis he documented artistic representations of migrant belonging in the UK and Italy. His doctoral project is focused on trans-cultural resistance to extractive systems and colonial unknowing in Canada and Haiti. He is interested in research on policing, gender and race, and cultural and political reactions to migration at the intersections of displacement, indigeneity, and national memory regimes.

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