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Advocate Reveals The Plight Of Migrant Workers In Italy


In Italy, the coronavirus pandemic is revealing just how much that country relies on its migrant workforce. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, many undocumented migrants were suddenly recognized as essential workers.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Over the strict eight-week lockdown this spring, Italians got to know the name of Aboubakar Soumahoro. The African Italian has become the spokesman for hundreds of thousands of voiceless migrants, migrants who couldn't stay home, who were risking their health to go out to work. In an interview with NPR, Soumahoro spoke of the injustice underlying the food industry, where tens of thousands of undocumented migrants work.

ABOUBAKAR SOUMAHORO: (Through interpreter) The reality is that laborers work at the limit of human dignity, what can be described as new forms of slavery. And they lack decent wages. They earn only 3 1/2 euros an hour, half of what they should be paid.

POGGIOLI: Soumahoro is the subject of a new short documentary called "The Invisibles." Two Italian filmmakers shot the footage during the height of the pandemic in farm fields, where migrant labor kept Italy's food supply chain moving smoothly.


POGGIOLI: Here we see Soumahoro among a group of migrant farmhands in a field near Foggia. He points to the inhumane conditions of their shantytowns - makeshift hovels, no running water.


SOUMAHORO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "We are among the invisible field workers," Soumahoro says, "the wretched of the earth, abandoned in social misery." Soumahoro, now 40, arrived in Italy at the age of 19 and went to work in the fields, picking crops. But he aimed higher. He enrolled in Naples University and got a degree in sociology. He now coordinates farmworkers for a trade union, and he's an active presence on social media. Soumahoro doesn't like to talk about himself, but he comes across as self-confident, familiar with both the language of the academic and the despair of the exploited migrant.

In the documentary, the camera follows Soumahoro as he drives a van across Italy's agricultural heartland, delivering donations of food and protective gear to migrant farmworkers. But these essential workers cannot protect their health.


SOUMAHORO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Social distancing is a privilege here," says Soumahoro. People are packed together and have no access to the health care system. Thanks to his new visibility as a union leader, Soumahoro met Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in June to push for legal recognition of the rights of all undocumented workers. In the documentary, he frames the moral stakes of his campaign this way.


SOUMAHORO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "If the workers lack dignity and rights," Soumahoro says, "the food they provide is virtually rotten." Soumahoro is a rising figure in Italy's cultural world. His 2019 book "Humanity In Revolt" champions what he calls a new brand of solidarity. He doesn't downplay rising racism toward migrants, but says his focus is on discrimination against all workers, migrants and Italians alike.

SOUMAHORO: (Through interpreter) We have taken up George Floyd's plea. We can't breathe because we're invisible, because of our working conditions, our poor housing, our place of origin, religion, skin color or sexual orientation or because we are women.

POGGIOLI: "Therefore," he adds, "we are a union of invisibles who demand to be seen and to pursue our happiness."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.