In times of crisis you realise whom you need the most: migrants, labour market and the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy

In times of crisis you realise whom you need the most: migrants, labour market and the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy

There is a saying that in times of crisis you realise whom you need the most. This seems particularly relevant in our dire times, when, on the one hand, we are facing an invisible enemy and we are for the most part confined into our homes. In this crisis we soon realised and publicly praised some real heroes: from healthcare professionals, to law enforcement personnel, emergency workers, and shopkeepers, that by stoically doing their duty are saving lives or allowing us to keep on with our ‘new’ lives. Migrant workers, on the other hand, are often almost invisible. Thus, how are migrants facing the crisis of the coronavirus, and why shall we realise now more than before about their relevance? Did this situation change something in migration policies?

Indeed, these are also times when we come to see migrants’ importance in various crucial sectors of the economy, and even our lives. Riders, that bring home our food and often allowed some food business to remain active, logistic workers that keep the supply chain running, food and agricultural workers, as well as domestic workers that took care of our homes and our elderly relatives are often migrants. Therefore, in times of crisis we come to realise how important such elements are (were) to our everyday lives. On the one hand, we have those who are still working and ensuring several essential services. On the other, we have those who “went missing”, those who, because of the restrictive measure applied to protect public health, have lost their income and job – most often precarious/irregular. For instance, most domestic workers, often paid by the hour, were forced to stop working, and the same happened to those doing occasional jobs.

If for most of us do without a housekeeper or a babysitter can be a nuisance, for those who were doing such jobs as their primary source of income, it is a tragedy. Reportedly, several migrants originally from countries that are easier to reach from Italy with no stable jobs or prospects in light of the Coronavirus (i.e. Eastern Europe) managed to get back ‘home’ before the full closure of the borders. Yet, the vast majority of migrants remained in Italy, often with no more income or support. At last, some economic relief measures are supposed to be enacted with a new decree, after about two months since the beginning of the lockdown.

We need them, so we miss them (or vice versa).

Going on with the reasoning “we need them, thus we miss them” (or vice versa), migrant agricultural workers, and seasonal workers in particular, gained some special attention, as they are under the spotlight in many parts of Europe. In the past weeks, we assisted to mass arrivals of seasonal workers to countries like Germany and the UK, mostly coming from Eastern Europe, raising debates about potential health risks and their actual working conditions. This has not (yet) happened in Italy, but the issue is indeed present here as well, as every year migrant seasonal workers ensure almost one fourth of the agricultural production in Italy, with most of them now blocked by borders closures. Furthermore, the number of permits and invitations for extra-EU seasonal workers were already considered often insufficient, and burdened by excessive red tape in ordinary times (as we have seen in the Sirius WP5—social partners focused--country report). This issue has been clearly described in an article by Letizia Palumbo and Alessandra Corrado on Opendemocracy, which was recently featured on the Sirius website ( The authors concluded their overview stressing how we must change the current Italian migration policies. This is particularly relevant in order to fight potential blackmailing and exploitation, while in parallel it is needed to ensure proper working conditions and wages to the workers in a high-risk sector, where illegal practices are still common. 

Proposal for regularisation

In this regard, one of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic was to bring back into public debate a proposal to regularise most, if not all, the hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants that are currently present in Italy. This would decisively contribute to terminate a ‘catch-22’ situation in which (in most cases) if you do not have a job you cannot have a residence permit, and you cannot have a regular job unless you have a valid residence permit. An initial declaration was already made in January 2020 by the Minister of Interior, whom opened to the possibility of regularising undocumented migrants who are able to get a regular job. The issue was then reinstated by several appeals made by NGOs, and trade unions after the pandemic outbreak. More recently, the Minister of Agriculture, Teresa Bellanova, proposed to regularise undocumented migrants who work in agriculture in order to overcome potential labour shortages, and protect them from exploitation. Recent studies reported that about 600,000 irregular migrants are living in Italy, many of whom employed in agriculture, and often exploited by their employers or intermediaries through the phenomenon of the “caporalato”. Other members of the government also supported the proposal, given that the agricultural and food sector is considered a strategic one for the country. Furthermore, with a rather negative economic outlook, this may prove an even more unfavourable environment for migrant workers, who can more easily become victim of the irregular market and exploitation, well beyond the agricultural sector. The proposal would also have many other benefits, also from a practical public health standpoint, granting them access to healthcare and social services.

Finally, after a prolonged debate among the governing coalition, a compromise was reached, and a regularisation of (some) irregular migrants has been added into the “Relief decree” approved by the Council of Ministers on 13 May 2020. As a result of the political compromise that led to its approval, the measure does not allow for a generalised regularisation of migrants, but it focuses on some specific categories of workers: agricultural, domestic and care ones. There will be two paths for the regularisation and emergence of irregular workers. The first is a work permit for those who are actually working in the above-mentioned sectors, who will receive a regular contract from their employer. The second concerns those who are currently unemployed but, in the past, have been working (with a regular contract) in those sectors can receive a 6-month temporary permit to find a new job.

Despite all its limitations, this is good news in dire times, finally implementing – at least in part - the appeals promoted by several social partners and associations, as was also captured by the Sirius research through the various stakeholder interviewed/surveyed. It is ultimately a choice that is both ethical and rational: on the one hand, it recognises the existence of a mass of invisible people and give them their dignity back and the prospect of a better life. On the other hand, it safeguards public health, allowing replacing most of the tens of thousands of seasonal workers coming from abroad, which would be blocked by travel restrictions, and it allows fighting tax evasion and the irregular job market. Moreover, this contributes decisively to a wider framework aimed at fighting human trafficking and exploitation. Finally, it shall be mentioned that the decree might later be modified by the Parliament, but, according to various political sources, its general structure should not be changed.

Mattia Collini (University of Florence)