Migrants in Italy live and work in increasingly precarious conditions 

A joint report by the Italian Labor Ministry and the National Association of Italian Municipalities found that at least 10,000 migrant farm workers in Italy are living in extremely precarious housing. The study has revealed just one aspect of the broader conditions of exploitation and uncertainty faced by migrant workers in the country

July 28, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Migrant workers Italy
(Photo: USB) 

At least 10,000 migrant farm workers in Italy are being forced to live in extremely precarious housing conditions, a report has found. Released on July 19, the study was the result of an expansive “census” conducted by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policies and the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI) between October 2021 and January 2022. 

Approximately 3,800, or half, of the municipalities in Italy completed a questionnaire on the presence, flows, and characteristics of migrant agricultural workers and their housing conditions. 

38 municipalities reported the presence of 150 informal or “spontaneously unauthorized” settlements including on farms, in buildings, shacks, tents, and caravans. These settlements range from just a few units to large “ghettos” housing thousands of people. The report characterized these housing conditions as “places of deprivation of rights and of exploitation,” without access to essential services and mechanisms for integration of migrant workers including unions and legal aid. A lack of adequate facilities and liveable conditions have also had fatal consequences for the already poor and vulnerable migrants due to accidents such as fires. 

As reported by InfoMigrants, these informal dwellings are not new – 38% of the settlements mentioned in the report have existed for at least seven years, while 12% are at least 20 years old. More than one in five such camps have recorded the presence of women and children. The report also found that 30% of people living in these areas were either refugees or asylum-seekers, whom the state must protect under its international obligations. 

Only about 30% of the settlements had access to public transport, according to the study. Meanwhile, 10% of these dwellings were located more than 50 kilometers away from the migrant residents’ place of work, and another 40% were located over 10 kilometers away. 

This means that workers are often forced to rely on the corporali, or intermediaries (“gangmasters” who often have ties to organized criminal groups), to reach the farms. The corporali are part of the illegal yet widely established practice known as “caporalato” where migrant workers are recruited to work for low pay and in conditions rife with exploitation and abuse. 

Areas of the country’s southern region were ranked the highest among the 11 regions affected, however, the ANCI has stated that precarious living conditions exist throughout Italy. 

“The Report is not simply a mapping of how migrants live and work in our fields,” stated ANCI head Antonio Decaro and Labor Minister Andrea Orlando in the preface to the report, adding that it shows “the way in which in our territories today, we recognize and deny dignity to those lives and that work.” The document itself is part of a three-year plan to address labor exploitation in Italy’s agricultural sector.

Around 690,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to be living in Italy, including people from countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and from India.  Widespread conditions of exploitation have been likened to a form of “modern slavery.” Back in 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery found that 400,000 undocumented migrants risked being exploited, and around 100,000 likely faced “inhumane conditions.”

That same year, the CGIL-FLAI union released a report which found that around 430,000 people had been hired irregularly to work on farms. Over 16% of workers did not have any labor rights and 38.7% were paid wages below what was otherwise fixed under collective bargaining agreements. Other estimates show that 40% of migrant workers have no proper contracts. 

Living and working conditions became even more precarious with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerned solely with a potential labor shortage, the Italian government announced in May 2020 that it would grant temporary residence permits to an estimated 200,000 undocumented workers in the agricultural and care sectors. As this would only benefit a fraction of the total number of undocumented workers in Italy, the decision was criticized as an “act of cynicism” prioritizing workforce needs over people’s health and lives. 

People could seek temporary residency based either on employer sponsorship arrangement or through a job seeker permit. However, aside from the hundreds and thousands of vulnerable migrant workers in high-risk industries such as construction who were excluded, the program did not even reach the agricultural workers it was seemingly supposed to benefit.

In fact, the program is said to have created further avenues for fraud and exploitation, with reports of fictitious labor contracts being sold for over $8,000. 

Migrant workers in Italy continue to work under dangerous conditions with little to no access to social assistance. On July 23, hundreds of workers held a protest in Ragusa, supported by the Unione Sindacale di Base or USB trade union. The action was organized to draw attention to the disappearance of Daouda Diane, a migrant worker from the Ivory Coast.

Diane had been working at a cement factory without a contract (through an illegal hiring process) prior to going missing on July 2. In a video he had filmed, Diane could be seen working at the cement factory and operating a pneumatic hammer. He did not have any protective gear including gloves or a helmet. He could also be heard denouncing the harsh working conditions in the area. 

However, according to USB, investigators claimed that the cameras inside the company were “under maintenance” on the day in question, and the factory’s owner claimed that he never met Diane.

“Because that’s what happens, if you work without a contract, you simply don’t exist…Nothing has moved in recent years to improve wage and safety conditions- we continue to work without a contract, without safety devices, to die of heat and fatigue in the countryside where the phenomena of serious labor exploitation are observed everyday,” read a statement from USB. 

On July 27, it was reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Ragusa had opened an investigation into murder and concealment of body in Diane’s case. 

Meanwhile, USB has demanded the urgent convening of a joint table of the Sicily Region-Ragusa Prefecture for the immediate implementation of measures to help workers escape exploitation, for their regularization, and ensuring safety conditions at work. The protest also drew links between Diane’s disappearance and the ongoing persecution of trade union leaders in Italy, arguing that these leaders represented workers who were often migrants and victims of exploitation.