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Italy Debates Permits For Undocumented Immigrants To Fill Seasonal Labor Shortages


Now to Italy, where the coronavirus pandemic is reviving political tensions over migration. The government has proposed giving undocumented migrants work permits to fill seasonal labor shortages in agriculture. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the country's populists are up in arms.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Italy's southern countryside provides a stark contrast in images - lush fields of vegetables, dotted with dilapidated shacks where migrants, mostly from Africa, live without running water, electricity or windowpanes.


JEAN-RENE BILONGO: We are considered as ghosts, something just less than human beings.

POGGIOLI: That's what Jean-Rene Bilongo, a social worker from Cameroon, told NPR in 2009. Today, he's in charge of migrant farm workers at Italy's biggest trade union. There are an estimated 650,000 undocumented migrants in Italy, many exploited in what Bilongo calls semi-slave conditions. Less than $30 for 16 hours of work is not unusual.

BILONGO: The miserable conditions we are talking about are worse than the conditions we know in the slums of the Third World countries.

POGGIOLI: But Italy needs these migrants now. Its agriculture depends on seasonal workers. In recent years, most came from Eastern Europe, but pandemic travel restrictions have kept them in their home countries. To fill the labor gap, Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova wants to ensure undocumented migrants get proper work contracts.


TERESA BELLANOVA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "We have real ghettos, hellish places where desperation from hunger and solitude is growing. This issue can no longer be manipulated," says Bellanova, "as if migrants were our enemies. They are vital to our food supply chain." She proposes work permits for some 200,000 migrants. Matteo Salvini, leader of the opposition right-wing League Party, leapt on this.


MATTEO SALVINI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "A blanket amnesty for 600,000 illegal migrants - you heard that right," said Salvini, "600,000." Actually, Bellanova proposes work permits for 200,000. Salvini's League became Italy's most popular party thanks to its anti-migrant stance. But Tito Boeri, one of Italy's leading economists, says this may no longer be a winning strategy.

TITO BOERI: I think that right now, Italian population is aware the contagion is such a serious risk. But something has to be done, that our health depends on the health of other people.

POGGIOLI: Boeri has long favored legalization of undocumented migrants for their contribution to the economy. Now, he says, it's more urgent than ever.

BOERI: The key thing is that they should not be done for labor, simply, or economic reason. That should be done for health reason.

POGGIOLI: Otherwise, the entire population will suffer, says Giovanni Visone, communications director of INTERSOS, an NGO that works with migrants.

GIOVANNI VISONE: Living in the streets as homeless or living in informal settlements, especially squats, it's very hard to be compliant with all the protective measures.

POGGIOLI: Legalization, even temporary, will give migrants access to health care. Minister for the South Giuseppe Provenzano stresses it's thanks to these workers that food reached our tables during the lockdown. Recognizing them - it's an issue of justice.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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