As panic buyers empty supermarket shelves across the world, are the agricultural workers who fill them being protected?
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.
After the old shantytown was evacuated, its residents were not provided alternative housing, save for a small tent camp, forcing many to look for new improvised shelters somewhere else.
In the neighbouring towns of Taurianova and Rizziconi, two overcrowded slums hosting 200 people each have emerged. Migrants live in shacks built from cardboard, wood, plastic and scrap metal.
Potable water and electricity are nowhere to be found. Workers build makeshift toilets or simply relieve themselves in the fields.
“This requires an immediate intervention from the authorities to put these people in a condition of safety and dignity,” Francesco Piobbichi, who works with Mediterranean Hope FCEI, a project run by Italy’s Evangelical Church Federation, told Al Jazeera. "These workers are key to fill supermarkets’ shelves with fresh fruits and vegetables. We cannot deny them protection amid the emergency.
“Our protracted attempt of dismantling the slums now needs a drastic acceleration. We are telling the civil defence, the government and regional councils they need to provide these workers with a housing solution as soon as possible to avoid the spread of the infection.”
There are some 35,000 empty houses in the agricultural plain. Aid agencies say that instead of investing in more camps, workers should be allowed to use these homes.
Hand sanitiser has been distributed at settlements, said Andrea Tripodi, mayor of San Ferdinando, adding he also managed to secure gloves and finalised the purchase of cameras with a thermal scanning system to quickly identify people with a fever - one of the coronavirus symptoms.
“We certainly need more measures and other devices amid this health emergency, also to prevent social tension from rising,” Tripodi said. “We are doing everything we can. We are also collecting soaps and shampoos to distribute among the workers. But we are left alone.”
Aid groups, meanwhile, are busy raising awareness.
“But it is really complex to explain to them that they need to wash their hands for about 25 seconds when they lack water in their settlements because the prefecture dismantled their camp’s illegal connection,” Piobbichi said, adding that the current nationwide lockdown restricts the movement of both aid workers and migrants.
In the southern province of Foggia, 500 kilometres north of Gioia Tauro, thousands pick tomatoes, olives, asparagus, artichokes and grapes in the country’s largest agricultural plain.
“The situation has become a race against the clock,” said Alessandro Verona, a health worker with the humanitarian group INTERSOS. “We are expecting a peak of the pandemic in Apulia towards the end of the month or beginning of the next.”
Apulia has more than 200 infected patients. But like in Calabria, no infection has yet been confirmed among the migrant workers.
“We are making blanket prevention activities across all settlements. We have reached around 500 people so far. Still, this is not enough.”
In many of these settlements, water shortages are common and in emergencies people resort to farm water.
“The only efficient prevention measure is to take these people out of the ghettos as soon as possible, especially from the most crowded ones. If not, we will face an unmanageable situation. But only the government and the institutions are capable of such a thing,” Verona said.
In southern Campania, migrant workers are still gathering near large roundabouts of busy roads to meet their bosses. The region has now more than 650 infected patients.
Jean d’Hainaut, cultural mediator with the anti-exploitation Dedalus cooperative, said among the people his association supports, many are waiting for their asylum requests to be completed - meaning they lack a residency permit and cannot access basic healthcare.
Italy grants residency permits to migrant workers possessing contracts. But lengthy bureaucratic processes mean permits frequently arrive late, often towards their expiration. This process has been suspended amid the pandemic.
In November 2018, Italy passed the so-called “migration and security decree” drafted by former Italian interior minister and far-right League party leader, Matteo Salvini - a move that pushed hundreds of vulnerable asylum seekers onto streets.
The document cracked down on asylum rights by abolishing the “humanitarian protection” - a residence permit issued for those who do not qualify for refugee status or subsidiary protection but were deemed as vulnerable.
“Over 90 percent of the people we meet at the roundabouts hail from Africa’s sub-Saharan countries. We are talking about a couple of hundred of workers, though numbers are difficult to pin down precisely,” d’Hainaut says.
“We have been distributing a safety kit among workers for the past couple of years,” he says. “This has now turned to be very useful as it includes gloves, paper-made protective clothing and protective masks.”
The agency has decided to remain on the street to keep offering its services to the migrant workers whose daily job means survival.
“Last Thursday, I only saw around 20 people waiting for recruiters. The information campaign has been successful. Still, demand for workers has also decreased. I’ve asked the municipality to help distribute food,” d’ Hainaut.
“This would further limit people’s presence on the street. I’d feel more reassured to tell workers to stay home while providing them with something to eat.”