COVID19 and digital extractivism

Following up my earlier posts on COVID I’d like share a long interview (in Chinese and Italian) with Zheng Ningyuan on the website sconessione precarie, a web platform of precarious workers based in Italy. Ningyuan is a Chinese artist and co-founded founder of the WUXU group. During the current crisis he founded the 4xDecameron project to share reflections and thoughts on the quarantine between Italy and China.

Ningyuan’s interview offers a spectrum of how COVID may transform people’s lives fundamentally in the shadow of currently adopted containment measures. One important aspect concerns what Biao Xiang, in another article, calls the deep transformations to our current “mobility economy“. In line with previous observations about the rising oligopoly of retail businesses and the current global re-dimensioning of commodity trade (particularly of food products), Ningyuan reveals a few rarely highlighted aspects of the Chinese crisis response. Rising difficulties in the food supply chain during the lockdown have inspired the Chinese government to stimulate digitalised buying platforms like (Alipay) e Tencent (WeChatpay), for example. On the one hand, such online distribution has compensated the perceived inefficiency of physical retail shops and centralised logistics. But it also generates an acceleration of control mechanisms over people’s everyday mobilities through increased web surveillance. Finally, it leaves millions of non-resident citizens such as informal migrant workers and homeless people, literally, off the grid. During this current epidemic, for example, the Chinese government has strengthened the so-called “health code (健康 码)” system in order to monitor the biological status of individual citizens in order to avoid possible threats to public health. This system can directly limit our very sense of being mobile, Ningyuan concludes, because it further blurs the boundary of who and what is determined a risk to the preservation of biological life as an object of government intervention.

One of the major challenges ahead is exactly to foresee how the biological governance of post-COVID life will further enhance this digital extractivism of our everyday mobilities – in which China is observed to be prime developer and commercial leader. In line with Ningyuan’s interview, Biao Xiang writes how the COVID-19 epidemic and the subsequent responses are particularly impactful because they abruptly halt what we may call a “mobility economy” -while also transforming it in different ways. Comparing the Chinese government reaction to the 2003 Sars crisis and the current COVID epidemic, he concludes that that the control of mobility is no longer specific to controlling the chain-like mobility of rural-urban migrants and the way they are presumed a risk to society. Today, the government is consolidating what Xiang calls a serious of grid reactions: residential communities, districts, cities and even entire provinces act as grids to impose blanket surveillance over all the residents, minimise mobilities, and enforce isolation. Such reactions are following a trend of proliferating labour mobilities, whereby people are constantly moving between homes and jobs -a situation that is pushing this differentiation, rhyzomatic government response. Several autocratic governments are already experimenting with social network technologies today to control mobility in the post-COVID phase. it remains an open question how these technologies will also include the “off the grid” informal workers and non-residents who remain or do not remain valued as key assets to maintain current levels of welfare.

COVID: towards a global food labour crisis

While the impact of the recent COVID pandemic on agri-food labourers is only now becoming apparent, new alarming information emerges about yet another unprecedented crisis: of fresh food production. In a recent article for Internazionale, Fabio Ciconte and Stefano Liberti quote Italian producers, who, they say, have been suffering a drop in turnover of between 30 and 50 percent in recent weeks. In this phase of global emergency, the agricultural sector is not only undergoing an unprecedented crisis. But the growing monopolisation of fresh food distribution appears to be exacerbating frictions between producers and supermarket chains. As I wrote last week, the latter have been officially privileged in this crisis.

In particular, Italian food producers accuse large-scale distribution networks of channeling their profits through telematic food fairs: a method of of public food sales, which, Ciconte and Liberti reveal, pressurise farmers to sell their produce at unsustainable prices.

In the meantime, the global farming industry complains about a huge shortfall of workers to harvest fruit and vegetables. Despite the joint call to constitute a “land army” by the British Farmers’ Association -presumably to be recruited from people put out of work by the crisis – protectionist policies are visibly damaging the labour force employed in the harvesting of food products in the UK -often under detrimental conditions. Already in 2017, 4,300 vacancies here were left unfilled by immigrant workers due to Brexit.

This militarisation of food supply chains also generates important setbacks though. Today farm groups in the US are warning that immigration restrictions put in place this month by the Trump administration could lead to important shortages of food and the labour to harvest it. In Asia, the situation looks equally bleak: in Thailand, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are returning home, leaving the country’s large mono-cropping cultures practically without labour. Australian horticulture, which is in the middle of harvesting season, finds its thousands of workers with their visas curtailed because of COVID. In India, agricultural labourers are already among the worst hit by COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns.

National containment measures against COVID continue to block mobility, close borders, and prevent global interaction. But global production chains will soon be confronted with companies that lack the necessary mobile labour to produce food for those staying home.

Sars-CoV-2 and (mobile) food (producers): who cares?

One of the interesting – and worrying – dimensions of the corona (officially COVID-19, or Sars-CoV-2) containment measures has been their reliance on food retailers. Despite all the social distance measures and mobility restrictions nation states are now imposing across the world, people still need food. And retailers have been crucial, sometimes even the only legitimate resorts to get it. But is anyone asking which consequences this generates for those who are producing it? In this post I am asking what is happening to agricultural labour at a time of corona crisis across the Mediterranean, which for some time now has gained the status as one of the most important provider of fresh food to European markets.

In Italy, the corona crisis is producing significant effects not only on retail businesses, but also on agricultural labour. In 2018, for instance, the federation of food producers estimated, about three quarters of fresh and packaged agri-food products were sold to large retail chains. One of the important measures taken by the Italian government has been to centralise food consumption during the current crisis. In annex to the Ministerial decree, signed on 11 March, a list appears of what the government regards as legitimate food retailers. Interestingly, these include supermarkets, discounts and grocery shops -but not food markets nor acquisition groups. This unique reliance sounds strange at a time when food supply networks may come under increasing pressure. Without much consultation, several mayors have univocally closed down weekly food markets in their cities. This has generated an even closer dependence of their citizens on large-scale distribution networks. Despite the governments’ explicit call not to hoard prime necessities, every decree has been accompanied by a systematic assault on supermarkets and a rapidly emerging crisis in commodity supplies.

two effects of COVID-19: hoarding, and empty food shelves

A direct consequence of this dependency on supermarket distribution has been a rising nervousness in the agricultural districts. In rare agreement, labour unions, agricultural entrepreneurs and voluntary associations have been ringing the alarm bell to denounce the lack of assistance and call for preventive safety measures. Ironically, the agricultural sector has been designated as ‘essential’ to keep the country going in the latest Ministerial update, alongside transport and logistics -but assistance to workers has been structurally lacking. Not coincidentally, these sectors represent a labour force of predominantly foreign origin. In the province of Cuneo (Piemonte), the Capitanata (Puglia), in Castel Volturno (Campania), the Vulture (Basilicata) and in the Piana di Gioia Tauro (Calabria), where thousands of foreign labourers work to pick fruits and vegetables for Italy’s home-staying citizens, NGOs and labour unions are currently assisting workers in the margins, pending institutional support. Worries are now rising that a COVID contagion may spread in these districts like a fire.

An extra source of stress for those who are already struggling to work for the day is the limited freedom to move around. In the informal settlements of Rignano and San Ferdinando for example, where up to 500 people permanently reside without access to basic services, humanitarian organisation INTERSOS and EMERGENCY have set up mobile monitoring units to assist mobile workers. Other organisations like the RED CROSS and CARITAS, who previously managed official labour camps, are struggling to meet governmental criteria. The result has been a rising informality among workers who already remain invisible to state institutions.

To reach West-African workers active in the agricultural sector, EMERGENCY has now produced a video in pidgin English that informs them about possible anti-COVID precautions.

Similarly to Italy, the continuous arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led to a refugeeization of the agricultural labour force. Basically, this means that refugees now take on the precarious day jobs that domestic and other migrant workers would usually do. Of the 3.57 million Syrian refugees present in Turkey, only a small part live in official refugee camps. In turn, a growing majority has been filling the ranks of farm workers on the countryside, while trying to find a living in livestock production, greenhouse cultivation, and the harvesting and processing of various crops (like olives, cotton, hazelnuts, tea, pistachio, citrus fruits and stone fruits, vegetables). While relations between domestic and migrant workers have generally remained peaceful, recently there have been sporadic violent incidents against migrant residents. Now that Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan is rising its pressure on Syrian refugees to leave the country, the conditions of Turkish agriculture may soon face an unexpected downfall as its labour power is siphoning towards Europe.

In the meantime in neighbouring Greece, where migrants have been supporting the agricultural economy since decades, the patrolling of Europe’s Southern border is now rapidly turning from repressive, to violent. Before sealing its border completely in response to the global corona outbreak, Greek government forces have been caught repeatedly in violent anti-migrant actions (in one such event on the Greek-Turkish border, one man was allegedly killed by either Greek soldiers or ‘armed locals’ who actively assist them in their task – as the research group Forensic Architecture documented in the attached video). Urged by European governments, Frontex is planning to send more guards to the region now, together with vehicles, ships and surveillance technology provided and financed by European member states.

While anti-migrant violence is arousing protests among human rights groups and advocates, the question how rising border repression may affect the current Sars-CoV-2 outbreak remains so far unanswered. In Turkey, Greece, and Italy, farm production depends ever more significantly on the effort of flexible, precarious labourers who, at rising rates, are recruited among refugees who are either blocked or killed at the border. While the corona virus has certainly made the world aware of its intense interconnections, this may be yet another, important question to figure out in the near future.

(c) Beatrice Clippa-Muti (FLAI/CGIL)

Contagion

I share a reflection by Adia Benton on the development of the recent COVID-19 emergency, which I think is worth reflecting on:

Very rightly I think, Benton argues against the conventional outbreak narrative, where a new, deadly virus emerges in the scandalous intermingling of Asian or African native species and ‘man’, circulates along well-traveled business routes, and is unleashed on the Western world through illicit intimacies. This linear geography – which she picks up from the famous movie Contagion – strongly misses the point about the way the recent COVID-19 disease spreads and affects the world. Viruses move in bodies, she notes, and thus the relative freedom of certain bodies to move across borders as well as the perceived risk associated to this mobility definitely deserves more attention at a time when national security and territorial borders appear to become again a dominant paradigm in international politics.

At a time when governments increasingly wage their wars against the national contagion of a disease, which -as the epidemiologists keep repeating – ‘respects no borders’, it becomes clearer and clearer that its mobility is actually more networked and rhizomatic than state governments are willing to accept. Mind for example the recent Malta, Slovenia and Austria closures with Italy as well as the Trump administration’s continuing flirtation with the same idea. Such territorial containment and its related, racist imagery of the evil outsider may well help ‘put a face’ on an otherwise unidentifiable danger, but it risks to create an illusion of national security at a time when mobilities are regulated increasingly through other, more subtle technologies of diversification and control.

One small irony in this context has been the progressive acknowledgement that the infamous Patient One, a businessman who was hunted down for weeks in the Italian region of Lombardy, actually brought the virus over from neighbouring Germany; on the way, infections of the same cluster (named Germany/BavPat1/2020) have been identified throughout Switzerland, Finland, Mexico and Brazil. Although the evidence on this cluster is far from definite, it appears to confirm Benton’s thesis that indeed certain forms of border promiscuity and certain forms of border containment are accelerating the wider infectious consequences of COVID-19 throughout the world.

Another interesting point Benton raises, concerns the largely neglected political ecology of contagion. At a time when humanity is thought to have acculturated nature completely and the consequences of its extractivist expansion are spreading throughout the planet, the COVID-19 emergency does force us to reflect a bit more deeply about the wider implications of these anthropogenic interventions, not just in terms of global ‘risk management’ but also in terms of nature’s response. Benton uses a prop from the 2011 film Contagion, which ironically may contain some elements for such future reflection: the Nipah virus the film talks about takes off from the intimate contact between a bat, driven away from the tropical forest (literally flying off from a chopped palm tree), a slaughtered pig and a business women who shakes the chef’s hand in a casino restaurant before setting off on her global travel, contaminating the rest of the world. Next to the openly gendered and racialised imagery this film projects, it also poses two crucial questions for us to answer in a preferably not so distant future:

  • what level of (calculable) risk is humanity globally willing to accept to sustain its current level of (certainly unequal and diversified) growth and welfare?
  • And what kind of interventions are needed to distribute this risk in a geographically sustainable manner?

Felandina eviction

Two days ago, the mayor of Bernalda, Domenico Tataranno, officially announced the imminent eviction of the migrant ocupation La Felandina, located in the industrial zone of Metaponto. The building has been occupied since a year by approximately 600 migrant workers, a majority of which are in possession of regular residence papers, according to official police sources. The migrants offer their labour to agricultural enterprises in the area. Since a few years the Basilicata and Calabria coastline has effectively become Southern Italy’s grocery garden: from the famous strawberries harvested in early Spring to the fruit and vegetables that are cultivated here over the Summer and Autumn, production continues throughout the year. Farmers sell their produce under often unfavourable contracts to the big distribution networks through intermediaries located in Puglia and Campania.

Speaking at a public meeting, the mayor said he took his decision after a long series of meetings with the Prefecture, Town Hall, and competent authorities – notwithstanding the acknowledgement, by the territiorial prefecture, that migrant workers who come to the area have difficulty finding alternative forms of accommodation. “It will be up to the State, through the security forces, to implement the eviction in practice. We will try, with the collaboration of those poor people, to find the best solution from a logistic point of view,” Tataranno concluded.

In March this year, the head of Basilicata’s Migrant Policy Coordination, Pietro Simonetti officially promised a temporary reception facility for 150 seasonal migrant workers, which so far has not been concretely defined. In the meantime, therefore, migrant workers have no other alternative other than occupying a new site.

Migrant tent camps in Metaponto, March 2018

It is not the first time it comes to such tensions in the area of Metaponto. Already in 2018, the mayor of Bernalda ordered the clearance of various tent camps located under the town’s bridges and in the many abandoned warehouses in the area. Like much of Basilicata, the area continues to be affected by a progressive abandonment, driven by a lack of institutional capacities and employment opportunities. Specifically, the 2018 eviction followed an open letter in which Metaponto’s residents denounced the, in their view, “disproportionate” presence of immigrant citizens who come to the area to work. Declaring a state of emergency, they asked the mayor to restore law and order in the area. 

The same year, two agricultural entrepreneurs and one gangmaster based in Metaponto had been officially indighted for illicit labour recruitment, which has become an offence under the new anti-racket legislation. Altogether, these events reveal once more the paradox of the current legislative context, which regards migrant labour intermediation as a criminal offense, but at the same time refuses to address its root causes beyond a mere logistical perspective. 

La Felandina (c) OMB

Moukef

Reading my regular reports on Italian tomato plantations, a colleague who attended a seminar on migration & agriculture in Agadir recently (pdf here) alerted me to an accident involving several ‘moukef‘, or informal workers, in Morocco. The accident caused the death of 14 women and 30 serious injuries in the plain of Kenitra, in the north of the country, which is famous for its strawberry production.

The ‘moukef‘ involves a form of informal employment for thousands of – predominantly female – workers who find temporary jobs in agriculture: not just in Kenitra but also the hothouses of Morocco’s Chtouka Aït Baha province. The province is covered with hundreds of burning plastic tunnels, where a modern form of slavery unfolds at the service of the country’s increasingly booming industrial export agriculture.

The ritual of labour recruitment appears to be similar to other plantation economies in Europe and the Americas: every day a handful of women who gather on an open labour market are selected by a ‘cabrane’, an informal recruiting agent whose mission is to bring them to the agricultural estates. The journey on board of the pickup trucks is full of danger for these women, who regularly become victim of road accidents.

The accident of 3 April is not an isolated case. Numerous times both local news outlets and agricultural workers associations have denounced the conditions of these workers.

Only last Summer, a similar accident involving 4 African day workers had caused a national outcry in Italy while their van crashed into a truck close to the city of Foggia, leaving the load of tomatoes spread out on the road pavement.

Appointments with ‘legality’: Italy’s slums


Another tragedy has affected African labourers in Italy’s plains this month. On 6 March, bulldozers demolished the San Ferdinando workers’ ghetto, located in the centre of Calabria’s orange plantations and Calabria’s Ndrangheta organized crime stronghold. The ghetto, which has claimed the lives of three people over the last year, had become a thorn in the eye of Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who has ordered the erection of a tent camp as well as a restoration of public order in the area. 

In 2011 the research team Bitter Oranges recorded living conditions in San Ferdinando in this video.

The eviction of San Ferdinando (close to Rosarno, which has been termed one of Italy’s new slavery sites) forms part of Italy’s interior minister’s promise to move “from words to actions.” Matteo Salvini is also the head of the right populist League party, whose members are currently establishing an institutional alliance with the European Far Right. Since his election he has repeatedly declared his intention to “raze to the ground” Italy’s shantytowns, including Rom and refugee settlements. Over the last year, more than a dozen such camps have been demolished, including the Baobab Experience in Rome, which hosted over hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as various Sinti and Rom settlements around Turin, Pisa and the Italian capital.

The official motivation for the eviction has been one of insecurity and a lack human dignity. But the Caritas settlement does not appears to offer much of an alternative. On 22 March, another person died in its tent camp situated only a few meters away from the old ghetto. The victim’s name is Sylla Nouma, a man in his thirties. “We hoped not to deplore situations like this any more,” the mayor Andrea Tripodi declared to the press. “It was an unexpected tragedy,” Vincenzo Alampi, the local Caritas director added. Although the causes of the fire are still be ascertained, a possible reason might have been a short circuit departing form the electric wires located in the corner of the tent.

The government-directed evictions, which Matteo Salvini systematically calls “appointments with legality”, particularly appear to target precarious workers’ settlements located in the heart of Southern Italy’s vegetable and fruit plantations nowadays. After the forced eviction of Rignano Garganico and Boreano last year (both situated in the tomato districts of Foggia and the Alto Bradano), the bulldozers have started moving to the South now. Last May local authorities destroyed the informal labour settlement of Campobello di Mazara, in Sicily –leaving workers no choice but to occupy new buildings: while 128 inhabitants were haphazardly hosted in a camp managed by the Red Cross, others have started to erect smaller settlements in the periphery of neighbouring Castelveltrano, in the heart of Sicily’s olive plantations. A similar fate now awaits San Ferdinando’s settlers. At the time of the eviction, the local prefect estimated the number of slum residents at 1.592 people, according to the Repubblica newspaper. While 200 were immediately transferred to official migrant reception centres, around 900 found temporary accommodation a new tent camp managed by Caritas. Local authorities have announced 30 housing units to accommodate future migrants coming to the area. But the mayor has repeatedly warned against housing migrants without also providing for local residents in this area stricken by poverty and criminality. In the meantime, the Interior Ministry has promised 350.000 euro’s to “restore liveability” in the area of San Ferdinando.

The official motivation for the eviction has been one of insecurity and a lack human dignity. But the Caritas settlement does not appears to offer much of an alternative. On 22 March, another person died in its tent camp situated only a few meters away from the old ghetto. The victim’s name is Sylla Nouma, a man in his thirties. “We hoped not to deplore situations like this any more,” the mayor Andrea Tripodi declared to the press. “It was an unexpected tragedy,” Vincenzo Alampi, the local Caritas director added. Although the causes of the fire are still be ascertained, a possible reason might have been a short circuit departing form the electric wires located in the corner of the tent.

An unexpected tragedy? Fire in Rignano Garganico January 2017

Because of pervasive uncertainty and a lack of consideration by official policies, more and more migrants now have started to move to other vegetable and fruit plantations in the area. Last month, some West African migrants already found refuge in a previous industrial plant in the plains of Metaponto, in neighbouring Basilicata, where the strawberry harvest is currently happening at full speed. Local associations are currently assisting the squatters with social and health services in the absence of official lodging facilities. Most likely, the slum will experience the same fate in a couple of months, when strawberries will have been picked, and the tomato planting season will begin once again in Foggia and Basilicata

La Felandina squat in Metaponto (c) OMB

Critical Geographies of Migration

I am glad to announce a new publication in the Handbook on Critical Geographies of Migration, edited by Katharyne Mitchell, Reece Jones and Jennifer Fluri, the information about which can be consulted here: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/handbook-on-critical-geographies-of-migration

The book, which comes at a significant time, offers an exciting and original analysis of critical research on the theme of migration, drawing on cutting-edge theories from an interdisciplinary and international group of leading scholars. With a focus on spatial analysis and geographical context, the volume highlights a range of theoretical, methodological and regional approaches to migration research, while remaining attuned to the underlying politics that bring critical scholars together.

The online version will be added within two weeks of publication. After that you will be able to link to the whole book or individual chapters, while front matter and introductory chapters are already free to access. The publisher has been so kind to allow faculty and students at institutions that have purchased the relevant e-book collection on Elgaronline to gain immediate access through this link. Furthermore, Elgaronline facilitates full text discovery alongside journals in many libraries and provides multiuser access allowing instructors to use chapters in online course packs.

Black Europe

The Black Europe Summer School announces its new website. This intensive two-week course, which is held each year in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, explores the contemporary circumstances of the African Diaspora and other people of color in Europe. Participants learn about the origins of Black Europe and investigate the impact of colonial legacies on policies, social organizations, and legislation today.

In addition, this is their new email address: info@blackeurope.org
and Facebook page: fb.me/BlackEuropeSummerSchool