Italy to grant residence to undocumented migrant workers during coronavirus crisis

The Italian government on Wednesday decided to temporarily regularize undocumented migrants working in the agricultural sector or as domestic helpers, to fill key jobs and allow workers health coverage amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Italy to grant residence to undocumented migrant workers during coronavirus crisis
People demonstrate for migrant farm workers' rights in Puglia in 2018. Photo: Roberto D'Agostino/AFP

“We have reached an important result… in the fight against crime and in putting an end to the black market in jobs,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told a news conference.

The migrant workers will be guaranteed “an adequate level of health care” in the face of “this exceptional health crisis”, Conte said.

READ ALSO: Italy extends expired residence permits, ID cards and driving licenses

The new rules allow foreign citizens to claim a residency permit if they are agricultural or domestic labourers and had entered Italy by March 8th 2020, giving them the right to live and work legally in Italy with access to public services including health care.

Italy's agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, cried as she announced the decision. 

“From today the invisible will become less invisible,” said Bellanova, a former farm worker and long-time campaigner for labourers' rights. “From today the state wins, because it's stronger than crime and exploitation.” 

Every summer, thousands of African workers, as well as Bulgarians and Romanians, come to Italy to harvest fruit and vegetables.

They are often poorly paid for long hours and housed in unsanitary camps. Many are exploited by mafia groups.


To benefit from the new scheme, applicants will have to prove that they have experience working in the agricultural or domestic sectors.

Those already in Italy without valid papers can apply for a six-month residency permit that allows them to look for employment and, if they're hired during that time, they can convert it to a regular work permit.

If they are already working “al nero” or under the table, their employer can apply to regularize their contract. The same applies to Italian nationals with an undeclared job.  

Applicants should not have left Italy since at least March 8th and must submit their application between June 1st and July 15th 2020.

The government decree also calls for urgent measures to guarantee the security and cleanliness of the workers' accommodation.

A number of NGOs and political parties — including Oxfam Italy and church organizations — called the move “an important first step… towards recognizing the rights and defence of the dignity of hundreds of thousands of foreigners present” in Italy.

Bellanova had threatened to resign unless the government passed the measure, which was supported by her own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) but opposed by its coalition partner, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S).

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Elections: Italy’s Lampedusa residents ‘left behind’ by migration focus

Italy's politicians are visiting Lampedusa to promise an end to migrant arrivals, but many living on the island say their other concerns go unheard.

Elections: Italy's Lampedusa residents 'left behind' by migration focus

“It’s just words, words,” complains Pino D’Aietti, who like many residents of the tiny island of Lampedusa feels abandoned by Italy’s politicians – except when a surge in migrant arrivals makes the headlines.

The 78-year-old retired plumber is sitting outside a restaurant on the island, where anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini has spent the past two days as part of his campaign for upcoming elections on September 25th.

Located between Sicily and Tunisia, Lampedusa is known for its beaches and turquoise waters, but also as the landing point for thousands of migrants on boats from north Africa.

On Thursday, Salvini visited the island’s migrant reception centre where as many as 1,500 mostly young men were packed in a facility meant for 350.

But while the League leader makes immigration the cornerstone of his election campaign, there is a sense of disillusionment here; an island of just 6,000 residents out in the middle of the Mediterranean.

READ ALSO: Italy to choose ‘Europe or nationalism’ at election, says PD leader

“We have the most expensive fuel, the (water) purifier hasn’t worked for a long time, there is no hospital,” railed D’Aietti, as tourists in swimsuits browsed shops nearby.

“We are spare parts. When the tourists go, the rubbish we eat! It’s disgusting. And who defends us?”

League Leader Matteo Salvini enjoys a boat ride while visiting the southern Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa for his election campaign on August 5th, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

The lack of healthcare is a recurrent theme.

“We have specialists and that’s it. For anything else we have to go onto the mainland,” said 58-year-old Maria Garito.

Mayor Filippo Mannino admits healthcare is a problem, but tells AFP: “The municipality has limited means, it is up to the state to take charge.”

READ ALSO: Russia denies interfering in Italy’s elections

He has also called for more help from Rome – and the European Union – to help manage the number of migrants, which often becomes unmanageable in the summer months when calmer seas cause a surge in new arrivals.

Not far from the town hall, at the end of an isolated road, is the so-called hotspot, the immigration reception centre.

It is protected by steel gates, but those inside can be seen whiling away the hours in a few shady spots.

The government last week agreed to lay on a special ferry to transfer migrants three times a week to Sicily, and AFP reporters this week saw hundreds boarding a boat.

People at a migrant processing centre on the island of Lampedusa on August 4th, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Few get to sample the delights of Lampedusa – unlike Salvini, who was pictured in his swimsuit in a pleasure boat off the island on Friday.

Although the locals prefer not to talk about migrants, prejudice is an issue here.

Ibrahima Mbaye, a 43-year-old Senegalese man who arrived here on a French visa three years ago, said “there are good people but half the people are racist, you feel it”.

He has been working as a fisherman, but says it has not been easy – and nor is it for those who arrive illegally.

“They think that Italy is their future, but when they arrive they’re disappointed. They understand that it’s not easy to earn money,” he told AFP.

As for the tourists on holiday on Lampedusa, many are either unaware or willing to turn a blind eye.

“We read about it in the newspapers but we really don’t feel it,” said fifty-something Dino, who has been coming here every summer for ten years.

The two faces of Lampedusa “are two separate things”, he adds.

By AFP’s Clément Melki