The scarcity of labourers has left the door open to the mafia to set up gangmaster rings. The Direzione Investigativa Antimafia, the government agency that fights mafias, says some illegal migrants are forced to work on the black market under the control of both Italians and foreign gangmasters known as “caporali”.
“In Italy, irregular workers in the fields are often people who are enslaved, in an inhuman condition, who are denied health care. Gangmastering means crime, it is a mafia,” said Bellanova, a 61-year-old former trade union activist who has fought against the gangmaster system since the late 1970s.
Immigration has become an emotional topic in Italy, with populist Matteo Salvini, leader of the League party, saying in February that the virus underlined the need for Italy to close its ports to migrants arriving from North Africa. His 15-month time as interior minister was marked by a sharp increase in anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric, which paid off in opinion polls.
The depth of those passions was on display on Sunday, when a 24-year-old Italian aid worker, Silvia Romano, who was held hostage in Africa for 18 months, stepped off a plane wearing a green Muslim hijab. Her conversion to Islam prompted threatening social media messages.
Politics aside, the new measure driven by Bellanova was born out of necessity and carries an additional benefit – boosting tax revenue at a time when the deficit is widening.
Harvest season is approaching across the nation for vegetables and fruit such as strawberries, peaches, apples, pears, kiwis and, later in the summer tomatoes and grapes.
The 370,000 legal workers who normally arrive from abroad are largely unavailable and may need to face quarantine even if they do come.
Francesco Mutti, chief executive officer of Parma-based Mutti Spa, the Italian tomato-processing company that is the market leader in Europe and sells in 96 countries, is “not particularly worried” about the availability of a workforce in the tomato fields, because his firm requires farmers supplying produce to the company to perform 100% mechanical harvesting.
“Despite that, my concern is related to the shortage in the harvest in Italy expected in the next few months with respect to the demand for tomato products,” he said. “Also, there will be effects on the food sector which is facing increased restrictions and safety measures that will weigh on costs and productivity.”
Bellanova says the new government measure is only a start. She’s called for the establishment of a digital system to match the supply and demand for agricultural workers.
“A shortage of people for the next harvesting campaigns means that vegetables an fruit are left to rot,” Bellanova said. “We risk a price increase while many people’s disposable income is eroded, a shameful food waste and huge damage to our economy.”
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