The Emergence of a New Proletariat — A Global Issue
  • opinion Daud Khan (Rome)
  • Inter Press Service

So why are many European parties, including mainstream parties, adopting increasingly hardline anti-immigration stances, and why do people vote for them?

I’ve argued before that no one really wants to stop immigration or even see it go. What anti-immigration parties want to do is create a new subclass of low-wage workers with no rights and no political power. (The shift to the far right in Europe and its impact on immigration | Inter Press Service ( “new immigrant proletariat” would increase the profits of those who employ immigrant labor and raise the overall living standards of the general public.

Recent events in Italy seem to confirm my hypothesis that low-wage illegal labor is deeply entrenched in the system.

On June 17, an agricultural worker was seriously injured and later died on a farm south of Rome. Satnam Singh’s right arm was caught in farm machinery and severed. The farm owner placed the severed arm in a box, left the box and the injured Satnam Singh outside his house, and drove away in his car. Satnam was eventually taken to hospital, but medical help was delayed and could not be saved.

Subsequent investigations revealed that Satnam had no residence permit or work contract and was paid a pittance for backbreaking work in debilitating heat and biting cold. The Agriculture Minister was quick to condemn the events that led to Satnam See’s death, and police are filing charges against the farm’s owner. However, the Minister also noted that Italy’s agricultural sector is viable, vibrant and law-abiding, and should not be criminalized over one unfortunate incident.

However, surveys and studies, mainly conducted by trade unions, prove his statement to be false. In the case of the agricultural sector, it is estimated that out of about one million workers, about 230,000 are illegal workers. 1Like Satnam, they are underpaid and poorly treated, and there are allegations of various forms of abuse, as well as the widespread use of amphetamines and painkillers to motivate them to work.

Moreover, various studies have shown that the system, which is supposed to increase legal and controlled immigration, actually ensures a steady supply of illegal immigrants. Here’s how the system works:

Under Italian law (the Bossi Fini Law of 2002), Italian employers may seek legal entry of foreign workers into Italy to work in certain sectors, including agriculture and tourism. The implicit agreement is that once the foreign worker arrives in Italy, the sponsoring employer will pay them a wage in line with the labor contract and industry standards.

But in many cases, the sponsoring employer does not come to pick up the worker, and far from offering them a job or a contract, the worker arrives and finds himself in a foreign country where he does not speak the language, has no job and no papers. This phenomenon is particularly acute in some Italian regions, such as Campania (around Naples), where only 3% of workers who enter Italy legally actually sign a contract with the employer who sponsored them to enter the country.

This is where the so-called “contractors” come in. These contractors pick up the newly arrived workers and immediately offer them help and assistance. They then act as middlemen, arranging jobs for them at a fraction of the wages of Italians doing the same work. Moreover, these unscrupulous contractors squeeze much of the money the workers earn by renting them housing and providing them with transportation to work.

And all this is happening under the noses of everyone, including various local and national authorities. For example, they know which companies have sponsored foreign workers to enter Italy. They also know how many work contracts these companies have signed with migrant workers. A recent report showed that in the Naples region, 22,000 sponsored workers entered the country, but not a single one of them signed a contract.

Similarly, the owner of the farm where Satnam Singh died had told local authorities that he had only one tractor and no workers – a fact that was clearly not true, but which no one bothered to verify.

These facts and more are often featured in reports conducted by trade unions and investigative journalists, especially after accidents or untoward events. Moreover, what is happening is not really secret: one only has to drive around the agricultural regions around Rome, or any part of central or northern Italy, to see hordes of workers from South Asia tending livestock and toiling in the fields that supply the city with fresh fruit and vegetables. In the more southern parts of Italy, it is young people from Africa who are picking the oranges and tomatoes.

Similarly, cities such as Rome and Milan have large numbers of illegal immigrants working as “delivery men” delivering food to people’s homes, as cooks, dishwashers and waiters in restaurants and bars, or as cleaners and caregivers in people’s homes.

This system seems to suit everyone and if every once in a while Satnam Singh dies, so be it.


Daud Khan A former UN official based in Rome, he holds a degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and Oxford University (where he was a Rhodes Scholar) and a degree in Environmental Management from Imperial College London.

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