Invisible Italy: The Impact Of Coronavirus On Irregular Migrants

From being a scapegoat over the past five years, migrants have now become the invisible product of a country which keeps losing its moral high ground.

Picture edited from amira_a / CC BY-SA

From being a scapegoat over the past five years, migrants have now become the invisible product of a country which keeps losing its moral high ground

By Paolo Sasdelli

An undisputable fact that we can infer from the Covid-19 crisis is that this epidemic has dismantled many of our most rooted beliefs, through which we hoped to deceive ourselves and appease our conscience. 2020 has been, thus far, an historical juncture which has exposed our greatest weaknesses and in which, paraphrasing from Italian, “the emperor has no clothes.”

One of the beliefs I am referring to is a common populist argument which depicts Italy as a no man’s land of irregual immigrants who are ready to impoverish our society and economy and, most crucially, to steal the work from our fellow countrymen. Over the past five years, our country has sustained the accusation that Italy’s steady decline is caused by the migrant. A decline which, according to the same argument, is first of all social degradation caused by the visible migrants that populate our squares, streets or train stations, and ‘pollute’ the decor of our country.

Today, the lockdown has hopefully demonstrated the fallacies of such an argument, by showing us, for instance, how indispensable irregular non-Italians are to our economy. However, it has also depicted the image of a country which put migrants under the spotlight only when it is politically convenient, according to the circustantial fears and beliefs. In fact, few have raised the migrant crisis debate during these pandemic times: where they live, how they cope with getting food or medical treatments, and how essential they are to our agricultural industry.

From being a highly discussed and easy scapegoat over the last five years, migrants have become, in a few months time, the invisible product of a country which is losing its moral high ground.

Some data (to begin with)

In 2019, the presence of irregular migrants in Italy could be quantified in a total of 562,000 people, out of 5,255,000 foreign citizens residing in Italy. ISMU (the Italian Foundation on Multi-ethnic Studies) reported a 10% increase in the number of migrant workers among the active population (38 million) in the past quarter century. Between 2018 and 2019, the highest number of recruitments were recorded in the agricultural sector (37.3%), where more than three in four non-Italian nationals were employed as laborers (76.8%), compared to 31.4% of Italians. Today, out of 1,200,000 total agricultural workers, 370,000 are non-Italians.

Why do we the need to keep in mind all these redundant figures? Because, while the debate on migration has spread throughout the country as a top-down political controversy to appeal voters, this 10% of non-Italian population has contributed to the increase in the country’s GDP by 10%. This means that what seemed to be an invisible and silent presence twenty years ago, has now become a structural component of our labor market and production system, without which crucial economic sectors such as the agricultural one could now experience serious economic contractions.

However, within this Italian debate on migration, the argument between the socio-economic potential of the migrants workforce against an aging nation incapable of generating employment for the emerging, qualified workforce has never truly polarized the attention of the people. Italy has hardly capitalized on these hyper-adaptable, low-skilled migrants — elevating their educational and practical knowledge, improving their working conditions, employment level, contracts and social cohesion. To the contrary, few have been the real attempts to favor their social integration, and, in some sectors — most notably the agricultural one — the illegal exploitation of workers has become a recurrent feature already from the very beginning of the recruitment process.

The Covid-19 opportunity

The agricultural sector has never been put under lockdown rules during the past two months since, according to the Italian government, unlike many other businesses, it is an essential activity for the nation and for us citizens to be able to live and be healthy, especially during this difficult crisis. However, the working conditions of non-Italian workers also remained unchanged, especially for most irregulars who weren’t allowed anti-Covid hygiene precautions, regular contracts, better remuneration or labor regularization. Still, these invisibles are essentials to the fields and to a sector which cannot die, especially in this critical moment.

A few days ago, the Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova, briefed the two Italian chambers with a very precise description of the situation.

“Irregular migrants in Italy — she reported — live in informal settlements, are underpaid and are often inhumanely exploited. I consider crucial the regularization of non-Community workers in our fields, as either it is the State that takes charge of the life of these people, or it’s the organized crime that will do so.”

Out of the many calls for the improvement of the working conditions of migrants, the only straightforward approach is the one proposed by Aboubakar Soumahoro, an Italian trade union activist for migrants. The regularization of the invisibles shouldn’t be merely done for reasons of economic utility during the Covid-19 emergency, or for the widespread sentiment of fear the country is experiencing. It should be done as a matter of humanity and moral duty, whereby we are able to recognize those people who structurally contribute to our common wealth the right to be safe at work, to live with dignity and thus to have a future in our country.

Therefore, as all crises, the Covid-19 outbreak poses an opportunity to improve the health, social and working conditions of an invisible Italy that is keeping our economy afloat. Otherwise, it is not difficult to predict that this phenomenon will only lead to further societal segmentation and fragmentation of our labour market along ethnic and national lines, leaving Italy in a state of widespread uncivilization.

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