In a bid to address coronavirus-related labor shortages, Italy has introduced measures to allow for migrants to work in the agricultural sector for the time being. However, the Thomson Reuters Foundation fears that this might inadvertently lead to exploitation at the hands of the mafia.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation reports that there is concern that criminal gangs could exploit undocumented migrants in Italy for cheap labor under loosened guidelines governing agricultural workers.
Carmelo Troccoli, a director at Italy's largest farming association, Coldiretti, told Thomson Reuters that it could become easier "for the mafia to use some people in Italy, like migrants without documents, to make them work (in farms)."
"We are strongly fighting against this type of crime in Italy because it touches all farmers - in the south, in the center and in the north," he said.
According to Coldiretti, Italy's agricultural mafia works as a cartel that sets its own crop prices, manages the transport of goods produced outside the legal framework, controls entire supermarket chains in the country, and is estimated to have an annual turnover of 24.5 billion euros ($26.65 billion).
Mafia exploitation of immigrants on farms in Italy is known as "caporalato" — an illegal, but well-established, practice. Under the system, migrants illegally work long hours for wages below the national minimum and are often subjected to violence.
It is estimated that Italy is home to more than 600,000 undocumented migrants, mostly from African countries, who, according to agriculture minister Teresa Bellanova, are particularly susceptible to falling prey to such exploitation. She said that if the state failed to take responsibility for these migrants, organized crime would step in.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver, said that people working under the "caporalato" system, are often exposed to conditions akin "to those of modern slavery" following her visit to the country in January 2020.
The Italian government and various labor rights groups have also issued warnings saying that this form of modern-day slavery is likely to rise as the coronavirus lockdown has resulted in a chronic labor shortage.
A slow harvest
More than a dozen non-governmental and religious organizations in Italy have joined calls to ensure migrants' rights, including Action Aid and Caritas. Some meanwhile have called for alternative solutions to the harvesting season.
Roberto Caponi, director of labor and welfare policies in Italian agricultural association Confagricoltura, said the shortage of labor could instead be filled by hiring unemployed Italians and opening corridors with Eastern Europe for workers to come. However, other EU nations have already expressed worries that importing workers from Eastern Europe would only work to a limited extent during the ongoing pandemic situation, and are also looking at using migrant labor to meet the labor shortage.
Italy depends on up to 370,000 seasonal workers from abroad each year to work during its springtime harvesting season. However, travel restrictions designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus have made it difficult to manage this year's harvest, affecting a quarter of the country's produce, according to Coldiretti.
Meanwhile, both Coldiretti and Confagricoltura have set up online platforms to match job-seekers to local farms.
With Thomson Reuters Foundation