The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, highlighting the importance of often invisible frontline workers in Italy. Trade unionist Aboubakar Soumahoro, an Ivorian native who arrived in the country 20 years ago, is now calling for stronger measures in support of agricultural workers.
Aboubakar Soumahoro is a known figure in Italy, especially among farmworkers. The 40-year-old veteran trade unionist is often seen on television and social media, defending the rights of undocumented immigrants who are often exploited at the hands of the employers.
And he knows what he is talking about from first-hand experience: Soumahoro himself was part of this denigrated workforce once upon a time. Born in Cote d'Ivoire 40 years ago, he arrived in Italy 20 years ago, where he initially worked as a tomato picker in the south of the country.
"I've experienced the same frustrations, the same humiliations, the same worries," he said of his experience in Italy.
Now a trade unionist, Soumahoro wants to shake up the system, which he says makes these essential workers "invisible." He says that the agricultural sector employs migrants in the countryside to harvest fruit and vegetables under "hellish" living conditions: "If we consider that about 600,000 people in Italy don't have residence permits, we can say that we are failing, that it doesn't work," Soumahoro said referring to current practices in Italy as "modern-day slavery."
Hundreds of thousands of foreign agricultural workers in Italy are exposed to exploitation, according to the country's trade unions. Some of them are subjected to the "caporalato" system, a structure that is run by criminal gangs similar to the Mafia. Caporalato has been compared to modern-day slavery, as it is set up in a way that intermediaries between the worker and the employer siphon off a large part of their meager wages.
From pandemic panic to legal status
The Italian economy was brought to its knees earlier in the year by the COVID-19 crisis, resulting in a near-standstill of the agricultural sector. The government then announced in May that it would regularize hundreds of thousands of illegal workers, who are essential to the agricultural and human services sectors. That way, they will have access to social services like healthcare. By early July, there were 80,000 applications under the new scheme.
Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova, a supporter of the move, had previously stated herself that some "600,000 people are underpaid and often inhumanely exploited" on Italy's harvesting fields.
"The regularization of undocumented migrants is not only an economic issue but also a social and humanitarian one," she said.
Soumahoro: 'regularization not enough'
However, Aboubakar Soumahoro is not quite satisfied with the regularization program announced by the government. He says they fall far short of solving the actual problem by excluding countless people from participating in the long-run: foreigners, whose residence permits in Italy expired on or after October 31, 2019, have until August 15 to apply for a residence permit under the new program. However, that permit won't be valid for a period longer than six months.
Soumahoro points out that there is another shortcoming in the government program: Employers are responsible for filing the application, which includes paying a fee of 500 euros. He says that many have no intention of using the new system "because not only is it too expensive, but there are also thousands of workers excluded because their residence permits expired before the deadline" of October 31. He believes that employers will rather just hire new people, who don't meet the criteria of the program.
"We're asking for a minimum of one year's regularization because in a dramatic phase like the one we're going through, you can't find a job in six months," Soumahoro added. He also called for a "national emergency plan for work" as well as for overall changes in immigration laws.
'Food license' to end exploitation
Frustrated over not having his voice heard, on June 16, during the government's "general assembly," where its post-pandemic recovery plan was announced, Soumahoro announced that he was starting a hunger strike. He demanded that the government introduce a "food license" to highlight work conditions. Products with the "license" as a food label would be produced without the exploitation of workers.
"If adopted, the system would allow consumers to know what they are eating, and farmers to avoid having their hands tied by supermarkets," the activist said. Supermarkets "impose prices that do not allow [laborers] to make a decent living from their work," he added.
Whether or not his hunger strike will change anything, is uncertain. Italy's government parties struggled for many weeks to agree on the regularization program as it is. It might take another pandemic for them to even bring the subject up again.