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 forInternazionale, 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.
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.
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.
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 ecologyof 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?