The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the problems of societies around the world. In Italy, the first Western country hit by COVID-19, it revealed how much the country relies on its migrant work force. Many undocumented migrants work on farms, as field hands and harvesting crops — jobs that Italians don’t want. With the pandemic, they were suddenly recognized as essential.
One African-Italian became the spokesman for hundreds of thousands of migrants — those who couldn’t stay home, who were risking their health to go out to work.
Over the course of the country’s strict, eight-week lockdown this spring, Aboubakar Soumahoro became a household name.
In an interview with NPR, Soumahoro spoke of the injustice underlying Italy’s food industry, where tens of thousands of undocumented migrants work.
“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,” Soumahoro says. “They earn only 3 1/2 euros [$4] an hour — half what they should be paid.”
Soumahoro’s fight for migrant workers’ rights is the subject of a new short documentary called The Invisibles. Italian filmmakers Carola Mamberto and Diana Ferrero shot the footage during the height of the pandemic, in farm fields where migrant labor kept Italy’s food supply chain moving smoothly.
In one scene, Soumahoro is among a group of migrant farmhands in a field near the southeastern town of Foggia. He points to the inhumane conditions of their shantytowns — makeshift hovels, no running water.
“We are among the invisible field workers,” Soumahoro says, “the wretched of the earth, abandoned in social misery.”
The documentary follows Soumahoro as he drives a van across Italy’s agricultural heartland, delivering donations of food and protective gear to migrant agricultural workers. But these essential workers cannot protect their health.
“Social distancing is a privilege here,” Soumahoro says in the film. People are packed together in cramped living conditions and have no access to the healthcare system.
In the documentary, Soumahoro frames the moral stakes of his campaign this way: “If the workers lack dignity and rights, the food they provide is virtually rotten.”
Soumahoro, 40, arrived in Italy from Ivory Coast at age 19 and went to work in the fields picking crops. But he aimed higher. He enrolled in the University of Naples and earned a degree in sociology. He now coordinates farm workers for a trade union and is an active presence on social media.
In June 2018, the weekly newsmagazine L’Espresso caused controversy when it put Soumahoro on its cover alongside a photo of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right, anti-migrant League Party. The two men were juxtaposed as if rival candidates, with readers being asked: “Which side are you on: with cynicism, indifference and seeking consensus through fear? Or with moral rebellion, empathy and an appeal for unity of the weakest?”
Soumahoro met Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in June to push for legal recognition of the rights of all undocumented workers. Earlier in the pandemic, the government issued a decree that would allow undocumented workers to apply for a six-month work permit. The government had hoped 300,000 farm workers would get temporary legal status. But the eligibility terms were so narrow that less than one-third applied.
Soumahoro is a rising figure in Italy’s cultural world, too. His 2019 book, Humanity in Revolt, champions what he calls a new brand of solidarity. He tells NPR his focus is on abolishing discrimination against all workers — migrants and Italian citizens alike.
“We have taken up George Floyd’s plea,” says Soumahoro. “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.”
Therefore, he adds, “we are a union of invisibles who demand to be seen and to pursue our happiness.”