What happens after “the journey”? The invisible migrant workforce behind our agricultural produce

By michela Sandron

The lack of structural and harmonious integration policies, as well as an inadequate migration system, are fueling work exploitation in Southern Italy, giving a new meaning to the “migration crisis.”

For decades, the European Union (EU) has sought answers to the question of migration. Faced with an increased inflow of asylum-seekers at its border, several policies have been designed and implemented to divert individuals’ intentions to migrate, but few have been directed to tackle what happens after a migrant’s arrival. As a consequence, asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants often fall to the margins of society, working in the informal market and in poor living conditions. 

The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) has proven unfit to address the new wave of immigration to the EU, and  the Dublin Regulation was put especially under pressure. A policy crisis escalated, eventually causing some Member States to suspend “Dublin” entirely in order to better process asylum requests. Due to the lack of agreement on a reform, the Union opted to manage migration from outside its territory, namely through the externalization of its policies. With the EU focused on restricting the inflow of asylum-seekers, those who made the journey are often left neglected, especially if they find themselves in a Member State with an overwhelmed asylum system. The new Migration and Asylum Pact presented by Commission President Von der Leyen briefly mentions the integration of third country nationals, but only with a view to attracting skilled workers. Integration policies are thus mostly left to Member States, while in the EU a legal vacuum persists.

In this way, current undocumented individuals remain excluded from a common policy strategy, despite their contribution to the European economy. If the EU wants to move towards a comprehensive new Migration and Asylum Pact, it needs to recognize the presence of undocumented workers and plan their transition into the legal economy, in order to maintain the high standard of human and social rights protection it claims to have.

The case of the undocumented migrants in the Italian caporalato: exploitation in the agricultural sector 

The agricultural sector of Southern Italy is a case in point where undocumented migrants workers are being exploited and fall prey to mistreatment. It is difficult to exactly discern how many undocumented migrants work in agriculture, due to their irregular status, however former Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova claims they number around 600,000.

Italy produces five million tons of tomatoes per year, thus being the largest producer in Europe. A third of this production occurs in the province of Foggia, where mostly undocumented seasonal pickers from sub-Saharan Africa work. They are severely underpaid, earning between €25 and €30 per day and working up to 12-14 hours. This phenomenon is widespread and the recruitment process, as well as management of irregular migrants, are strongly linked to established criminal organizations such as the mafia. For this reason, it is hard to tackle the problem and find out the true extent of these activities. As a consequence, the tomatoes and other produce picked up by these workers end up in European supermarkets.

Migrants are employed on a daily basis, through a system of informal intermediators, the caporali, or gangmasters. Usually, local farmers turn to them when in need of quick and cheap labor. The gangmasters exploit the workers by taking a share of the workers’ wages and charging them for transportation to the field, as in these areas public transport is non-existent. 

As a consequence, these job opportunities, although miserable, have caused the formation of slums near the pick-up locations, where migrant workers live in poor living conditions, without a proper sanitation system and in poorly built sheds. 

Attempts at legalization and the way forward

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the rise of travel restrictions between EU Member States. In Italy, this prompted a shortage of seasonal workers, who are mostly foreign, and are usually employed over the summer to meet the supply of agricultural produce. In order to bridge this gap, the Italian government moved forward to implement an amnesty that would prompt the legalization of 200,000 undocumented farmworkers. However, according to Human Rights Watch, this initiative was driven by an economic strategic approach, rather than being rights-based, further claiming that the policy’s design was not sufficiently clear, leaving many undocumented in confusion. Nevertheless, the human rights organization believes that Italy could provide leadership in a European Union where regularizations of migrants are still controversial.

Cases of migrant exploitation in the agricultural system are not only tied to Southern Europe, and migrant exploitation is not only tied to the agricultural sector. Undocumented migrant workers are the most at risk of social vulnerabilities, considering that their lack of legal status strips them from basic human and social rights protection. The EU should shift its strategy on migration from one that only aims at addressing the root causes of migration, to one that deals with its current population of undocumented workers. An adequate system of integration into the legal economy should be put in place, with full coordination between the 27 Member States, in order to decrease discrimination and offer the highest standards of social protection.

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