(Dis)solving the “Problem” of Immigration: Why migrants and citizens alike should strive for a reformed labor system

Photo Credit: Beatrice Puddu

Italian food is venerated by Italians and tourists alike. Being Italian, I am frequently told by others how much they love our food. But how many of them are aware of the conditions in which day laborers are forced to work to ensure its cheap and steady production?

Imagine your dream holiday in Italy. In Venice, say. You are crossing Piazza San Marco in the midday heat, thinking of your next Italian meal. A young woman is standing in the middle of the square, dressed in an Italian flag. The scene is dreamlike. She bites into a tomato but the tomato starts to bleed. The blood starts flowing down her arms and stains the Italian flag, and soon it is everywhere. It’s a dreadful vision, but sublime. Nationalists and foodies, the youth and the elderly, conservatives and progressives, mothers and children—everyone is enraptured by the scene.

The woman is Diletta Bellotti. She is silent but she displays a banner that screams to onlookers: “Made in Italy is Made of Blood.” Using symbols—tomatoes (the centerpiece of many Italian dishes), blood, the national flag—the performance gets her message across to far more people than those likely to be interested in hearing a public speech. Bellotti’s protests bring to light the injustice that permeates Italian agriculture, speaking to anyone on the political spectrum.

Undocumented immigrant workers are essential to the Italian food industry. Yet the conditions they work under are appalling—paid less than minimum wage, subjected to long hours and onerous conditions in the field, and lacking the protection generally afforded by Italian labor law. The labor system, known as caporalato and often orchestrated by the Mafia, has led to more than 1500 worker deaths in the last six years. In 2011, a group of immigrants went on a month-long strike to denounce this system of exploitation, and countless protests have since followed.

Still, as Bellotti said to Ultima Voce, “Italians see migrants as a threat, there is no social integration, and mainstream newspapers aren’t doing anything about it.” Her protests are an attempt to dismantle the us/them divide and create recognition that undocumented immigrants and citizens are on the same side, fighting exploitation.

At her core, Bellotti is a narrator—her activism started with a diary she compiled while staying in the slum of Borgo Mezzanone, where immigrant day laborers live. As journalists do, she also tells a story about Italy as it concerns immigration (and agriculture); but her narrative is strikingly different from that of the mainstream press. 

Not just in Italy, but all over the world, if you google search immigrationmigrationimmigrantsmigrantsrefugees, and then click on ‘News,’ you get similar results: stories about riots, fines, deportation, trials, and detention. Immigration is described as a problem. Politicians as well as pundits talk of migration as an issue of security. Migrants––the scary other––and the fantasized consequences of their arrival are represented as a threat to us, lawful citizens.

Attempts to surpass these narratives have been scarce. At most, the equation ‘migrant=threat’ has been replaced by the equally inappropriate equation ‘migrant=victim.’ Though slightly more tasteful, victimization is but another form of othering where they (the immigrants) are in danger and we (the developed world) are safe, where any help comes as a concession from the more developed to the less developed, to the more able to the less able, where the former have it in their hands to decide who and when is or isn’t worthy of help. 

Others have tried to frame immigration as a resource. The former president of the Italian social welfare institution (INPS), Stefano Boeri, for instance, has pointed out that Italy’s steadily aging population needs immigration to support an increasingly unsustainable pension system. While true and important, this once again reiterates the dualistic othering structure that opposes immigrants (them) to lawful citizens (us) by pointing out what we can get from welcoming them rather than what we can get from rejecting them.

Bellotti refuses to portray immigration as a problem—immigrants are not a threat and we don’t need to defend ourselves from them or any fantasized consequence of their arrival. But she also refuses to portray them as victims waiting for us to help them. Immigrants, we learn from Bellotti, share our same grievances and we should stand alongside them in the fight for a better society, free from oppression, abuse, and exploitation. With her protests, Bellotti brings to light the workings of a system that, while sustaining Italian agriculture, pushes tens of thousands of immigrant and non-immigrant-workers into conditions close to slavery. “Us” and “them,” we learn, are in fact on the same side, and together we are (or should be) fighting corporate and criminal exploitation.

Giuseppe Vicinanza is pursuing an MA in Philosophy at NSSR after having graduated in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Exeter (UK). He keeps an active interest in Italian and European politics, especially as concerns migration and abuses perpetuated on migrants by states and criminal organizations.

Originally published on PublicSeminar.org on December 2, 2020.

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