Coronavirus fears for Italy’s exploited African fruit pickers

As Italy’s north struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus, fears are growing in the south for thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Africa, who pick fruit and vegetables for a pittance and live in overcrowded tent camps and shantytowns.

The health infrastructure in the south is not as advanced as that in the north, and a vast infection outbreak could be devastating.

“Coronavirus cases have steadily increased also in other regions in Italy over the past weeks,” said public health expert Nino Cartabellotta. “There is a delay of around five days compared with the north, although we are witnessing the same growth curve across the country.”

In the north, foreign farm workers hailing from Eastern Europe have returned to their home countries, choosing to risk poverty over disease, and there are no new arrivals.

But fruit pickers in the south are stuck in camps, often lacking water and electricity and facing exploitation.

Italy is not alone.

Migrant workers are exploited across the European Union, forced to work endless hours and denied minimum wage or safety equipment, research by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights shows.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic endangers them further.

In 2016, Coldiretti, a farmers’ group, estimated that there were around 120,000 migrant workers in Italy, mostly from Africa and Eastern Europe.

Some 2,500 African crop pickers work in Calabria’s Gioia Tauro plain, a farming hot spot in the south known for tangerines, oranges, olives and kiwis and for being an infamous mafia stronghold.

Agricultural employers often work by the “caporalato”, an illegal employment system in which labourers are exploited for little pay.

Two weeks ago, the region had no known coronavirus cases. Today, there are at least 169.

Last summer, the largest shantytown in the plain was shut down. Italian civil defence built a new camp with running water and electricity a few metres away from the old informal settlement, but equipped it with just 500 beds.

This tent camp was eventually sanitised on Sunday, after repeated calls from humanitarian associations and the town’s mayor.

Although hygiene conditions are better than in the nearby slums, strongly advised social distancing measures are almost impossible to implement.

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