15 Apr, 2019

Can Europe Do More for Migrant Farm Workers?

by Augusta Nannerini

It’s a crucial part of Southern Europe’s explosive and toxic migrant story – illegal farm work that some describe as modern day slavery.

While some migrant workers in Veronese strawberry and Emilia Romagna fruit farms work legally, “more than 50 percent, or 430,000, of workers in Southern Italy had no official contract. Some 80 percent or 344,000 of these workers were foreign nationals and 100,000 were identified at high risk of exploitation,” according to the European University Institute (EUI) and the Open Society Foundation (OSF). Close to half - 42 percent - are women.

Behind this surge of illegal migrant workers is the collapse of traditional family-run farms. Large industrial farms now predominate and they depend on low-cost salaries. Italians refer to this new industrial farming system as “caporalato", a form of illegal hiring and exploitation of farm day workers.

Under “caporalato”, criminal gangs rent out migrants, while deducting services such as transporting them to farms and providing water to escape the brutal Southern Italian heat. Farmers avoid both payroll taxes and the responsibility for hiring illegal workers.

In 2015, a Camerounais named Pierre Yves Sagnet exposed what he called modern day slavery. He went to work as a day worker on the heel of the Italian boot, where he worked 16-hour days for minimal salary. "At the place there was a tented village with 800 workers living with only five showers and unimaginable hygiene conditions," he said.

After his and other reports, the authorities enforced a crackdown. In a 2017 report, the European Commission called for an increase in the number of labor inspections, expressing concern that the European economy “continues to rely on the labor of irregular migrants, which creates a pull factor and undermines the development of a labor mobility policy built on legal migration schemes”. The Italian government formally outlawing “caporalato”.

But a ban on migrant labor is proving ineffective. According to the EUI and OSF, irregular migrant workers are critical to the economic health of Southern Italian farms. Labor inspections that lock up illegal migrants will only create a vicious, destructive cycle. New arrivals will replace the imprisoned illegals, some of whom cannot legally be returned to their home countries.

Instead, policy should recognize the migrant contribution to the local economy.

A few innovative initiatives suggest a way forward. They involve “corporate responsibility, and promote fair trade.” For example, Coop Italia launched an awareness campaign to promote a more ethical agri-food chain called “Buoni e Giusti” (Good and Right) and created the “Network of Quality Agriculture Work”.

EU programs need to encourage and reward farmers for applying for work-permits for their migrants. Such an approach would foster migrants’ integration into the labor market and support the development of an efficient farm industry. It would be a “win-win” policy.

One could look at what Jordan has done for exiled Syrians. In 2016, the European Union relaxed rules of origins with Jordan for a period of ten years in return for allowing Syrians to work legally. Jordan also was offered $700 million over three years in humanitarian funding and $1.9 billion of concessionary loans. In exchange, Jordan committed to issue 200.000 work permits for Syrian refugees by 2020.

A similar program should be developed inside Europe. Italy and other Southern European countries need to be subsidized in return for regularizing the legal status of migrants. Legal routes need to be found for migrant workers to fill skilled labor gaps. Such initiatives will benefit both farmers and migrants. Southern European farms will thrive and pressure on migrants to head further North will be reduced.

Augusta Nannerini is a Researcher at the Luigi Einaudi Foundation.