The Italian agriculture minister Teresa Bellanova has announced the regularisation of the status of migrant farm workers—a measure responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The regularisation of migrants working in the agriculture and domestic work sectors through the so-called ‘Relaunch Decree’ has been highly contested. The centre-right opposition parties condemned the measure, along with criticism from some representatives of the Five Stars Movement, which is one of the parties in the current, heterogeneous majority.
According to the decree (art 110-bis), migrants who have previously worked in the agriculture, fishing, care and domestic work sectors can ask to regularise their status through two different procedures. In the first track, third-country nationals who have been in Italian territory without a valid residence permit since October 2019 can apply for a six-month residence permit to look for a job. In the second track, employers will be able to apply to regularise their foreign and Italian workers without a regular contract by putting in place proper employment contracts.
Following a campaign involving several associations, the approval of the decree represents a personal victory for Minister Bellanova, a former farm worker and a union leader who has been active in the adoption of this decree from the beginning.
Like in other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the agricultural sector in Italy in crisis. Countries across Europe have been racing to try to fill workforce gaps through recruitment campaigns and new migration measures. In Italy, the representatives of agricultural organisations repeatedly denounced the risk of collapse of the sector, asking for interventions like opening of ‘green’ corridors for migrant workers.
Minister Bellanova fought for the adoption of a regularisation measure not only to tackle the labour shortage but also to prevent the spread of the virus in the informal settlements where many migrant workers live. Associations and authorities have denounced the risk of contagion in rural areas and the necessity of precautionary interventions. Besides public health advantages, the regularisation of migrants will generate annual fiscal benefits that, according to Fondazione Moressa, could range from 2,800 to 5,250 EUR for each worker.
Politically neglected for decades, the ‘caporalato’ problem—illegal intermediation and exploitation of both migrant and Italian workers in the agricultural sector—has only been on the political agenda in recent years. In 2010, the so-called Rosarno rebellion of African labourers in the Calabria Region raised the profile of the issue in the media and on the political agenda.
Since then, some steps have been taken to address the problems, including more targeted sanctions for employers, which were introduced in 2011 in the Criminal Code (Law Decree 138/2011) and made stricter in 2012 with the adoption of the so-called Directive on sanctions (2009/52/EC).
This was followed in 2016 with Law 199/2016, which provided new legal tools for combating labour exploitation in agriculture, becoming a milestone in the fight against the caporalato system. In 2018, the Chamber of Deputies’ Joint Committees XI (Labour) and XIII (Agriculture) was appointed to assess the enforcement of the law, identify new legal and administrative measures and conduct site inspections in rural areas.