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Lost humanity in human resources: Italy’s economic revival through migrant labour exploitation during COVID-19

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Gran Ghetto, Foggia, Italy. 8 October 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius.

We arrive at a summer harvest season in Italy marked by COVID-19, and with it food and labour shortages. For that, people in the migrant community are being called on to assist. But what is reflected in the call for help is an ingrained attitude that migrants are valuable not for their humanity, but for matters of ad hoc practical convenience.


Fabulous (Nigeria) was rescued on the Mediterranean in November 2016. Right away, he learned to stay mostly indoors. There was nowhere to go in his new hometown, a small village in the agricultural south of Italy. He remains there today, almost four years later, without contracted work while waiting for results of his asylum claim.


Neither he nor the townspeople knew enough of each others’ languages when he arrived 11 hours after his landing in Catania, Sicily to even say hi. The townspeople were scared, he said. In any case, the only shoes he had for the winter were a pair of rubber sandals he received on donation after his rescue. It was too cold to go out. It was too hard to try to connect with a society which would only deign to acknowledge him.


‘I learned to be patient’, said Fabulous, as the world around him turned inward with fear.


The searing isolation of social distancing may have been a new experience for individuals and communities as the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the world in 2020. But for people like Fabulous in Italy’s migrant community it’s something they’ve felt for years.


He is an expert in social distancing, albeit unwittingly. Isolation does not come by choice for the migrant community, but as an effect of an exclusionary political force. That is dominated by Italy’s far right, which has denied migrants’ basic contributive value as human beings, but the sentiment is widespread.


‘Our lives are not so different in lockdown, because even before we usually only interacted with those we live with and [with other migrants] at our jobs’, said Fabulous

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Fieldworkers in the distance; beside the road to Gran Ghetto. Foggia, Italy. 8 October 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius.


The prevailing political narrative has defined people like Fabulous as a burden on the economy and as a threat to the culture. At best, if he is accepted at all, it will be in opportunistic service of Italy’s agricultural economy that, if under duress before the coronavirus lockdown, now stands besieged.


For this, thousands of undocumented migrants have been recently granted temporary six-month amnesty by the Italian government to assuage the aforementioned labour and food shortages. 


In the past, undocumented migrants have reported earning barely a few euros an hour for the gruelling work of harvesting vegetables and fruit. Peter, for example, is a migrant from Sierra Leone living in the southern region of Puglia, in the notorious Gran Ghetto whose inhabitants serve as the local agricultural labour force. In fall 2019 he said he earned five euros per hour, slung over and straining to collect tomatoes, zucchini and asparagus.


In 2017, Fabulous harvested tobacco on a farm in the Campania region that paid him 10 euros for an entire 8-hour day. While Yanks, a Gambian man also in the Campania region, has said work harvesting nuts would pay him 25 euros for a day that could stretch as long as 10 hours. When the bag of nuts he had harvested was full it weighed 100 kilos.


These figures would be a shock if they weren’t so common. As Fabulous and others have said, when the choice is between poor work or no work, accepting less than suitable conditions and inequitable pay will always win out.


Almost always, anyway.


Fabulous has himself bargained for better rates, having negotiated to more than double the 10-euro salary at the tobacco farm to 25. Later, he was unsuccessful at a lumber processing job that refused to raise his 30-euro-a-day rate to 55, the salary all contracted Italian workers around him earned. He quit in protest of the exploitation.


It was human dignity he was asking for then, exactly the thing Italy’s politics has refused to recognise and foster through planned integration into its economy and society. 

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Fabulous (L) and Andrew (R), both Nigerian, in Limatola, Italy. 27 October 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius.


The practice of Italy’s port closures and its refusal to save human lives at sea has long set the tone for how humanity is so lowly considered by the country’s prevailing powers. So while it is not a surprise to see migrants being called upon in a matter of convenience, the inconvenient question remains, how do you have a human resource without first acknowledging the human?


The people who were lucky to make it to Italy’s shores are rather luckless in their treatment on the ground now. Held in contempt for being there, Italy can indeed be a hopeless place to stand for persons who have already suffered extraordinary human rights abuses in Libya and crossed the Mediterranean by means as precarious as an inflatable dinghy. 


The Italian government has declared its shores unfit to receive migrants in distress citing health concerns. Officials suggest migrants are better off in Libya than in locked-down Europe. But this ignores the reality that should a person be faced with a choice of living in a war zone and suffering torture in Libya, or with escaping to Europe where they are at higher risk of catching the virus, the virus becomes a rather trivial concern.


The ongoing pandemic then has highlighted the driving force of Europe’s migration, and disproved elements of the nationalist anti-migrant rhetoric: in the midst of the gravest health crisis in a century, people are still rushing to escape Libya, still risking their lives at sea because it is a safer alternative than the immobile one.


Taking the first steps toward a stable economy in this context then requires valuing the humanity of the migrant community. Italy’s new neighbours are just that: people who are already there, whose existence is true and valuable, no matter what the prevailing political agenda may say.


‘Without these people, agriculture in Italy is on its knees’, a representative of Italy’s largest union said.


Meaning, with its short-term amnesty, Italy continues to fill a permanent labour need as if it were temporary. Without seeing the human value of the migrant community, it continues to see itself as exempt from responsibility for their integration and well-being, as apart from the people around them who are both needed and who are eager to participate.


‘We are so happy for Italy for saving our lives’, Ousman (Gambia), another in Italy’s migrant community said, after his rescue on Lampedusa.


We wait now to see if Italy will express the same to him, Fabulous and others like them for saving it during a COVID-19 harvest season, not just in economic terms, but human ones, too. The sort of recognition any individual person up to an entire nation needs to thrive.

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Pamela Kerpius & Nick O'Connell

Pamela Kerpius is the founder and Italy Correspondent of Migrants of the Mediterranean (MotM). Since 2016 she has documented individual migration stories from Lampedusa, Sicily, and across greater Italy. Nick O’Connell is the EU political analyst on migration policy for MotM. Migrants of the Mediterranean is a humanitarian storytelling organization that documents individual migrant journey stories from their countries of origin to Europe for the historical record.

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