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Q&A: Progress for Migrant Workers in Italy

Workers in a field of yellow rapeseed plants
Migrant workers from Sri Lanka harvest vegetables, in Caserta, Italy, on April 9, 2020. © Salvatore Esposito/contrasto/Redux

In mid-May, propelled by the economic crisis created by COVID-19, the Italian government approved a €55 billion stimulus package to relaunch the Italian economy. One aspect of the package gives undocumented migrants more opportunities to work legally in Italy. Open Society’s Lucy Carrigan recently spoke with Giovanna Castagna, a program officer with the Open Society Initiative for Europe, to discuss the new policy.

Can you describe the options now available for undocumented workers in Italy? 

Undocumented workers in three sectors—agriculture, domestic work, and care work—now have two options available to them to work legally in Italy.

The first applies to undocumented workers already working in one of these sectors. Their employer can now regularize that work, and these undocumented workers can also regularize their status for the duration of their contract—up to two years. The second is a temporary visa, lasting for six months, for undocumented workers to regularize their status so that they can look for work in Italy.

Why is this a welcome development to those who advocate for migrants’ rights?

The Italian government’s decision acknowledges the essential role undocumented workers play in the Italian economy. Until now, many migrant workers in Italy have been working without documentation, which has left them susceptible to exploitation and abuse, and has had a ripple effect on the Italian economy.

For example, undocumented migrants working in the agriculture sector are paid woefully low salaries, often no more than €30 a day for grueling work, none of which was being recouped in taxes. When migrants are allowed to work legally, their rights as workers are protected, and they are able to contribute to the local economy both through their spending power and through their tax contributions. 

The Italian government’s decision is in marked contrast to the policies put in place by the former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, which abolished humanitarian protection for migrants in Italy who did not qualify for refugee status. Ultimately, this increased the number of undocumented migrants in Italy to 600,000. 

Legal pathways to work and to safety are a key element of any solution to the ongoing challenges posed by migration. It is heartening to see Italy take this first small but significant step.  

More specifically, how will the stimulus affect individual migrants? 

Migrant workers will be safer as a result of this decision. Their working conditions should improve. Crucially, they will have better access to health care, which is a fundamental right at any time—even more so during the COVID crisis—and benefits not only migrants but the entire community. 

Often, migrant workers have been at the mercy of “caporali,” organized criminals who exploit their undocumented status to abuse them and force them to work in appalling conditions while earning pennies. Since these migrants have had no legal status, it has made it harder to advocate for their rights.

Because of this decree, though, employers must declare both the duration of the contract and the salary when hiring migrant workers, which should mean that migrants will earn the minimum wage. This will benefit Italian workers, too, who will also gain from the regularization of illegal job contracts.

The decree also contains a provision aimed at addressing informal settlements: in order to meet hygiene and sanitary conditions to fight COVID-19, prefectures and regions will need to adopt immediate measures to ensure the safety and cleanliness of housing conditions for migrant workers, who are often forced to live in overcrowded slums.

At Open Society, we have been talking about the COVID-19 crisis as “the big reveal.”  What is “the big reveal” in this case? 

The COVID-19 pandemic reveals how essential migrant workers are to Italy’s economy. Put differently, the “revelation” is that Italy’s harvest will not be picked without the work of migrants—who are typically young men from countries like Morocco, Mali, India, and Gambia; and who come to Italy to work, to save, and to send money home to their families.

What has also been revealed is that when Italy’s harvest is not picked, not only does this mean huge losses for Italy’s agriculture sector and the broader economy, it also means that the fruits and vegetables that are appreciated across Northern Europe—the tomatoes, the artichokes, the oranges, and the lemons—won’t be available.

How have Open Society grantees been involved in bringing this decision to pass?

The legalization of migrant workers has been a long-standing advocacy goal of our grantees. For a number of years, our grantees, including Coalizione Italiana Liberta e Diritti Civili, Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione, and A Buon Diritto have been advocating for legal pathways for migrants to work in Italy, in addition to residence permits for migrants who are fully integrated into Italian society. 

More specifically, since the onset of COVID-19, Open Society grantees have been advocating for the rights of migrants during this health pandemic. For example, Terra!, one of our grantees, has been working with the trade union Flai-CGIL, and dozens of other community-based organizations, to promote the legalization of migrants’ status. Ultimately, they believe, this will not only help migrants stay healthy, but also improve and protect the health of the broader community. 

Without dismissing the benefits, though, we should note that this stimulus proposal has downsides for undocumented workers, too. What are they?

While this stimulus decree represents progress, it does not address the structural challenges connected to labor exploitation for both undocumented and regular migrants, and Italy itself.

First, only workers in three specific sectors—agriculture, domestic work, and care work—are eligible. Second, migrants who apply for the temporary visa must be able to show that they already held a visa in Italy, and that this visa expired after October 31, 2019. They must also be able to prove that they had worked in one of the three specified sectors before that same date. 

How can we build on this progress?

This is an important first step. We hope that both politicians and the public will see the positive impact the legalization of migrant workers will have on their communities, both in terms of tax revenue and pension contributions, and also in terms of quality of life, both for migrants and for locals. 

We would like to build on this progress by advocating for additional necessary and as yet unrealized reforms to immigration policy. Ensuring legal pathways for migrants to enter Italy from the outset, for example, would mean issuing visas for migrants to come to Italy to look for jobs—as opposed to letting them risk their lives and cross dangerous terrain in search of an income. 

It also means extending this temporary visa to all undocumented migrants, not just those in the agriculture, domestic, and care sectors, and not limiting that visa to just six months. 

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