Italy’s Most Exploited: The African Migrant

The Italian countryside is renowned for its beauty, charm and agriculture. The harvesting of tangerines, oranges and olive crops are common and profitable for the local economy. Migrant workers are essential for the harvest of these fruits, as most Italian locals have either left the countryside in recent decades or refuse to work for such low wages. The majority of migrant workers in Italy’s agricultural industry are African migrants. Yet despite many African migrant’s vital contributions to the economy, they are arguably now Italy’s most hated and exploited inhabitants.


African migrant workers in Italy’s agriculture industry are often subject to racism and abuse. Many agricultural employers work by an illegal employment system called “caporalato.” This system is when labourers are exploited for very little pay. According to The Guardian, many African migrants are paid no more than €2 an hour. Such migrants do not reside in the local towns but often live on the outskirts in camps made of wood, cardboard, plastic and scrap metal.


According to Al Jazeera, many camps, including a large African migrant camp outside of Rosarno, have no clean water, electricity, or working toilets. Such labour camps are being considered a “phenomenon” by local rights groups. Valentina Campanella, president of the Sicilian branch of Anolf, an organization that support migrants and asylum seekers, says that the labour camps are endangering migrants. “The shelters are collapsing and there is no space in the reception centres. Many migrants are willing to do anything to make any money and they are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit. They have no alternative.”


Violent attacks against migrants, particularly African migrants have risen substantially in previous years. In 2010, migrant workers revolted against their poor living conditions after three labourers were injured in a racially-motivated shooting. Hundreds of migrants were expelled from the Rosarno area. According to Al Jazeera, a politician reported that Rosarno had become the world’s “only white town” due to the expulsion of such migrants.


Recently, on June 2nd, days after Italy’s new far-right government took power, Soumaila Sacko, a Malian agricultural labourer and Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) activist, was murdered in the southern region of Calabria. Meanwhile, more physical attacks against migrants have continued. On June 11, a group of migrants were shot at, with the attackers reportedly yelling “Salvini, Salvini” during the attack. On June 22, a 22-year-old Malian chef had been shot at “for fun” in Naples. The 22-year-old survived the attack.


The recent violent attacks against migrants are likely connected to the souring public opinion on refugee and migrant numbers in Italy. This toxic opinion has increased in the wake of the general election in March, where anti-immigration parties gained popularity in the polls. It is evident that far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini’s desire to push hard against migrants entering into Europe has also had a major effect on the public’s perception.


The exploitation and abuse against migrant workers in Italy, particularly against African agricultural labourers, has had little to no attention from Italian authorities. In regards to the “caporalato” system, a law against the practice was passed in 2016. Unfortunately, the new law has had insignificant success in providing justice and results for migrants. Adelmajihd Hanoun, a member of USB reports that “workers get fixed-term contracts of up to three months, but not all working hours are declared. Contracts mention 30 working hours per week, while guys work at least nine hours daily, including Sundays. Things don’t match.”


To make the situation worse, Italy’s immigration act only grants residency permits to migrant workers who have employment contracts. Due to this, Aboubakar Soumahoro, a USB leader states that “if labourers don’t accept the employer’s conditions, they won’t receive their contracts, therefore losing their residency permits. Contracts become an element of blackmailing, creating a systematic exploitation mechanism and depriving workers of their organizational tools.”


Italian authorities have also done little to address the migrant labour camp phenomenon. For example, a camp near Rosarno was destroyed by fire in 2017. Italian civil defence built a new camp, which included running water and electricity, yet the Italian civil defence only provided 500 beds for 3,500 migrant workers. Many camps have also been demolished by local authorities who deem the camps to dangerous. However, such authorities often provide no alternative accommodation. According to The Guardian, Don Baldassare Meli, a priest who has repeatedly appealed to people in Campobello to host migrants in the village’s many empty houses, states that many migrant workers end up on the streets. “They should have found shelter for these people before destroying their homes, but nobody agreed to host them.” Says Meli, “Refugees are already vulnerable to labour exploitation. If we demolish their houses then we will see many falling into more serious abuse, even slavery, because they are at the complete mercy of their employers.”


No state in the world is immune to migrant exploitation and abuse. However, Italy’s new political stance should not be used as justification for exploitative actions and violence against migrants. If migrant labour is to be used, authorities must ensure that migrant labourers are treated fairly and have access to suitable living conditions. Yvan Sagnet, the union leader for CGIL, states that the law has not been harshly applied. “Existing laws need to be applied, such as the requirement for farmers to give a contract to seasonal workers in Italy that includes food and a place to stay, but this never happens,” Sagnet explains. “That’s why, increasingly, migrant workers are forced to live in these ‘ghetto-camps.’” Sagnet states that a solution could be to convert the camps into official immigration camps, overseen and managed by the government. Sagnet further states that “we can’t just get rid of the tents and send these workers home. It won’t work. We need an institutional organization to negotiate the contracts between farmers and migrants.”


Organizations also need to continue advocating for the reform of Italy’s almost 20-year-old immigration act. The fact that the law only allows migrants to stay if they have a contract places the employer in a powerful and often oppressive position over migrants. The law needs to allow an exception that if a migrant’s contract is considered oppressive or exploitive, they can find new work rather than being deported.


As the exploitation of migrants is a global issue, international labour law is in need of a complete “revamp.” The three major international legal instruments specifically designed for the protection of migrant rights – the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s 1949 Migration for Employment Convention (ILO Convention 97) and 1975 Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention (ILO Convention 143) – have all largely failed due to the lack of ratification from developed states.


The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration hosted by the United Nations will take place in late 2018. The goal of this Global Compact is for the United Nations to develop a comprehensive framework, which will regulate migration worldwide. Organizations and academics must insist that “core migrant rights” to be continuously discussed and implemented into the framework. A core set of rights, rather than a complicated convention, will likely have more support from developed states like Italy.


Overall, Italy and many other states worldwide need to respect and protect their most vulnerable workers. Migrants being at risk of modern day slavery is unacceptable. All people should be treated fairly, no matter what their immigration status or race is.

Katrina Hope