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.

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

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

Migrant abuse

A violent clash between inmates and police left several injured in the migration detention of Palazzo San Gervasio, Italy. Palazzo, a small town of 5000 inhabitants in the region of Basilicata, has recently come to host a group of Tunisian asylum seekers from Lampedusa, which has been officially closed down for renovation (another group was dispatched to Turin). Officially, the Tunisians are being charged now for setting on fire parts of the Lampedusa camp in protest against their inhumane treatment -a charge that has been firmly denied and contested by a court in Turin.

After their arrival in Basilicata mid-March, some Tunisian asylum claimants had started a hunger strike, in a desperate attempt to claim their right to asylum and to see their lawyers. on 27 March, a sit-in in front of the gates by a dozen of activists from the CSOA Anzacresa collective incited the inmates to protest against their infinite detention, which caused the police offensive (according to this report by Cronache di Ordinario Razzismo). Video fragments (which are very difficult to obtain because of the deliberate destruction of personal belongings by the camp guards) shared by the family members of the detainees show several injured inmates carried away by the police.

After a long closure, the migrant detention centre (officially Centri di Permanenza per i Rimpatri: CPR) of Palazzo was officially reopened in January to take on inmates from the overpopulated hotspot of Lampedusa, which had been criticized for some time for its inhumane conditions (for Italian reports see here and here). The structure has a long history of migrant accommodation. Originally confiscated from organized crime in 1999 (from a man called Antonio Sciarra), it initially served as a temporary accommodation for seasonal foreign labourers who return to the region each year to harvest tomatoes (an issue we talked about repeatedly on this blog). In 2011 regional authorities abruptly closed the infrastructure, officially to prevent migrants to settle illegally within the camp structure. While this decision deliberately dispersed foreign labourers to the surrounding countryside to set up their makeshift migrant ‘ghettos’, the regional administration quickly transformed the former labour camp into an open prison (officially CIE: Centro per Identificazione e Espulsione) for about 60 migrant detainees dispatched from various landing sites in Sicily. In April 2011, journalist Raffaella Cosentino documented the extreme cruelty with which migrant prisoners were detained there at the time (amongst others in this video), causing a subsequent protest and official visit by three Italian parliamentarians (Touadì, Calipari and Giulietti), who confirmed this situation as unacceptable.

After a long closure, the management of the infrastructure has been assigned now to a private company, called Engel Italia srl. Engel is not new to migration detention in Italy. In 2014 two civil society organizations, the labour union CGIL and LasciateCIEntrare, officially denounced the company for serious irregularities in the management of a refugee reception centre in Paestum, where migrants claimed they were threatened at gunpoint after claiming their basic human right to medical and assistance and to legal support. Local associations from Basilicata, presided by the Osservatorio Migranti Basilicata, and flanked by LasciateCIEntrare and the legal assistance collective ASGI, already last December attempted to sensitize the public opinion to the imminent reopening of the centre with a joint appeal. Lawyers, who have been denied access to the centre now for “security reasons”, are trying to find other ways to reach the 40 people held in this open-air prison. The only news that crosses its walls now arrives through local associations and through the relatives of the detainees.

New Plantation

With less than one month to go, I gladly announce here the closing event of the New Plantations project, in Brussels on 14 December. For the last two years our international research team from Switzerland, Belgium and Italy has analyzed migrant work conditions in Europe, focusing on dynamics of illegalization, racialization and labour exploitation in the contintent’s agricultural sector.

Directed by a group of activists, artists and academics, the event will highlight the forces at play in the European horticultural industry. Rather than a classic presentation-based conference, the workshop will be pinpointed around several interactive tables, each of which will address a specific theme. The event will be closed by a short theatre show by Cantieri Meticci, whose members have been active participants in this project.

Anyone who is interested in participating, please send a confirmation email to project director Timothy Raeymaekers (timothy.raeymaekers@geo.uzh.ch) by November 30th.  More information on time, place and logistics of the event can be found on our facebook page and on the attached flyer. The language of the event will be French.

https://snis.ch/project/new-plantations-migrant-mobility-illegality-racialisation/

https://www.facebook.com/events/1768416089866523/

171114_Brussels flyer final

Sacrifice

david-showing-goliaths-head-caravaggioFurther to my previous post about Brussels some days ago, two apparently unrelated analyses appear to confirm my observations about the reasons behind IS expansion. According to terrorism expert Hassan Hassan, the strategy of hitting targets in Europe, far removed from their operational bases in the Middle East and Northern Africa, is increasingly unrelated to the loss of terrain they are experiencing in the latter. On the contrary, the attacks in Paris and Brussels show how IS is trying to take control over former Al Qaeda networks by aligning and associating themselves with the latter’s militants.

In an unrelated analysis, Scott Atran -an anthropologist working in France and the UK- warns not to underestimate the ideological traction of the IS Caliphate. In the poor neighbourhoods of Casablanca and Tetuan, as in the Parisian banlieus, he and his colleagues encountered a widespread acceptance, if not a sharing, of IS values as well as the brutal violence committed in its name. Despite some of the factual mistakes in Atran’s text (which are discussed in part on the Aeon forum) the key message is valid and lays in what Edmund Burke, in a different context, calls the attraction for the sublime -or the fascination to fight for a glorious and unifying cause.

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Far from being miserable paupers, or a rejected Lumpenproletariat (as Diego Gambetta showed for other historical examples), IS suicide bombers not only share this fascination, but they are also ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in favour of this greater good as well as for their group of companions with whom they share intimate relationships (Atran talks about a fusion of identity in this regard). In this sense it does not come as a big surprise that the large majority of IS recruits are mobilised through their proper families, the French centre against religious radicalisation (or CPDSI) reveals. Rather than more police and camouflage on the streets, therefore, what might be needed instead are closer contacts with such families at risk as well as community leaders. In their unwillingness to also address the socio-psychological causes of this terrorist (or, as Atran provocatively says, “revolutionary”) struggle, European leaders continue to play into the cards of the IS military leadership, which is becoming increasingly apt in exploiting this diminishing grey zone between the sovereign life of post-modern (neo)liberal democracies, and the killing of this life in the name of revolutionary sacrifice…

 

 

Post at IBRU

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IBRU, Durham University’s Centre for Borders Research, will be hiring a new research associate, beginning 4 January 2016. The researcher will be expected to initiate her or his own research that broadly aligns with IBRU’s research mission, while also contributing to projects initiated by other academic staff associated with the Centre.

The application deadline is 4 December 2015.

For a full job description and link to the online application, see here .