Commentary. Agriculture, for too long considered by many people to be a lesser occupation, is proving that it is a strategic sector. It is a supply chain for life itself. We must rise up to this challenge.

‘Invisible’ workforce reveals its essential presence in our lives

In these complicated times, there has been a return to talking about labor in the fields and the regularization of the status of immigrants in our country.

These are not new issues, for those who haven’t let themselves be distracted over the years—or for those who are aware of just how great a part their industrious hands play for the quality of our products and the welfare of our lands and our animals.

Those who are comfortable judging other people’s lives are those who probably have never even set foot in a field. Because if they had, they would have gotten a clear notion of the solidarity that one feels when engaging in hard work. Because agriculture is also hard work.

Because of COVID-19, the agricultural companies are seeing a serious shortage of labor, with more than 250,000 laborers fewer than needed.

There is a real risk of having to abandon a large part of the cultivated products in the fields.

It would be an unprecedented waste, a major loss that would dramatically compound other economic losses as a result of the emergency.

We cannot afford such a situation. That is why we are working on an action plan to match supply and demand for agricultural labor.

Agriculture, for too long considered by many people to be a lesser occupation, is proving that it is a strategic sector. It is a supply chain for life itself. We must rise up to this challenge.

It is clear that no one has ever intended to exclude Italian labor from the work available in the fields. I am the first to say that the many Italians who will not be able to work as seasonal workers in tourism or catering, as in the past, will have the possibility of turning to agriculture.

In Italy today, there are about 1 million agricultural workers, and the legal foreign labor force is at around 400,000 people. For ten years now, the number of Italians working in the sector has fallen and the number of foreigners has been increasing. Many of the latter have now returned to their country of origin due to the emergency. This employment gap has created a deep dysfunction, and this gap, which must absolutely be filled, can represent an opportunity for a new life for many. Especially for our fellow citizens who are left without employment today and who are willing to work.

The same applies for those foreigners who will continue to work in Italy thanks to the extension of the residence permits until Dec. 31.

It’s an opportunity for those in the agriculture sector who care about legality and the protection of rights and human lives. And for those who have long been waiting to be rescued from the downward spiral of undocumented work, exploitation, denial of all forms of humanity.

It is time to make choices that we’ve been all too hesitant to make until now.

We must all adopt a broad enough perspective to bring the real issues into focus. And we must finally see those invisible people who pick our fruit for our tables and live in inhuman conditions in workers’ ghettos, the brutal places organized by their exploiters, who will never be able to leave that life unless we give them a way to do so: a regular job and a regular life.

Today, in the midst of a health emergency, there are all the more reasons to guarantee them healthcare and rights, like for all workers.

We should all be aware that wherever the state is absent, lawlessness rules. And it does not rule only over the life of the “invisibles,” but also that of frail and struggling small businesses.

Some people, hearing me speak of healing the wound of ramshackle dwellings and workers’ ghettos and regularizing laborers, have put out an ad with the slogan “Italians first.” I have one thing to say to them: this is how we can better protect the Italians as well.

We will protect them by striking at the root of the unfair competition of undeclared and underpaid work that is forcing honest businesses to close down, leaving room for the illegal economy and damaging the reputation of our country on the international scene. We will protect them by rescuing the illegals from a condition of captivity in the ghettos. By properly registering all the people in the territory. By defeating exclusion and marginalization, out of which no positive sentiments can ever arise.

For those who really want to talk about other things than caring for human life, the Italian economy would also be better protected if this pocket of the underworld economy were to be brought out into the light.

The pandemic is bringing changes and questions.

The question I am addressing to everyone is: which side do we want to be on?

For me, the answer is obvious: never on the side of illegality, never on the side of labor exploiters.

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