Senegambian Lives amid Covid-19 lockdown in Italy
Importance of remittances for Senegambian households
According to the World Bank 2018 Migration and Development Brief, remittances make up to 10 percent of the GDP of both Senegal and The Gambia. The World Economic Forum 2019 called remittances the ‘lifeblood of developing economies’. Remittances are on track to become the largest source of external financing in developing countries researchers have agreed. A vast majority of rural and urban Senegambian families with economic difficulties can testify that remittances, and ‘to have a relative in Europe’, is serving as a kind of life insurance for the usually extended families. The importance of remittance to local development and for households cannot therefore be put into statistics.
As the Senegambian saying has it: abroad makes the difference. What we mainly mean is that the GMD and FCFA added together is no match to the Euro. Consequently, the admiration for Europe has taken Senegambian men, women and children to spend everything: from the last family goat, to the most expensive marabout and let alone the vulnerable lives of individual aspirants. It has brought about a lot of family breakages but its economic value usually remains at the centre of social discourse overshadowing all other potential negative impacts of this exodus out of Mama Africa.
Despite the very often present institutional discrimination, severe exploitation, lack of regular documents, proper housing, quality education or work opportunities, and the Senegambian diaspora has still managed to give a huge contribution to the households and the overall development of Senegal and The Gambia. But how does the ban and restrictions introduced in the European countries due to the COVID-19 affect the living conditions and the remittances of the diaspora?
Numbers of deaths related to the coronavirus are published day by day by the news portals. But how many people will die due to the lack of basic needs, services and rights? From structural poverty, hunger and institutional discrimination? What are the chances to see statistics of such?
COVID-19 is here to inform us about how unprepared we are in the health sector, and questions our general lifestyle and conditions. The virus itself could affect less seriously the dominantly young population of The Gambia, but not when you have no conditions to keep the recommended hygienic conditions, when you have difficulty to take a proper amount of Vitamin C daily, or when your ‘quasi life-insuring’ relative in Europe has no more income and is hardly surviving him/herself.
The real ‘cost’ of remittances
According to Eurostat, the Senegambian population in Italy as of 1st January 2019 is estimated to be 134, 940 people. To be precise, there are 22,817 with Gambian nationality and 112,123 with the nationality of Senegal. But in reality, these figures are just as near accurate. Most Senegambians residing in Italy can be found in marginalized sectors such as agriculture, construction or hospitality with or without documents. Many are labelled or considered as unskilled or low skilled. Which is also due to the lack of recognition of education or work experience gained in the home countries.
Work conditions in the agricultural sector, can be basically described with the adjectives such as exploitative, precarious and unsafe. The sector provides part-time, seasonal or daily peace-works for thousands of Senegambians mostly without formal contracts and social security. Senegambian migrant workers in the Italian agricultural sector on average receive 20-30 euros on a day when they are given work (although some have less than 50 days of work opportunity per year) or 3-4 EUR per bag for the collected products. The work and its conditions are mostly not protected by contracts, therefore the workers have no rights to claim sick-leave or unemployment benefit, but not even a compensation when they get hurt during work or due to the dangerous conditions present in the agricultural ‘ghettos’ (fires caused by electric problems are not rare unfortunately). The work is extremely demanding, since every worker is eager to perform high productivity for maximising their daily income, therefore they often spend 8-12 hours with intensive physical work under any weather conditions (from intensive heat to cold and rain, depending on the season).
The earnings of the workers are less than 50 per cent compared to what is recommended by the law, and the amount of working hours and days are excessive. Female workers receive even worse offers, and their work is paid around 20 % less than their male counterparts (between 1,5 – 3 EUR per bag or crate). The ‘agromafia’ has already built up a system in which even from this little earning, everyone has a lot to spend daily on transport (average 5 EUR per day), on water (1,5 EUR) and food (a sandwich for 3 EUR). The handmade agricultural ghettos, consisting of tents and all kinds of other random shelters have no such thing like a kitchen or bathroom, therefore the basic needs of the workers, who spend their day with intensive physical work are even more desperate when returning ‘home’ from the fields.
On top of all this, the work is never guaranteed, the gang-masters have sophisticated techniques to threaten and intimidate the workers how much they are ‘lucky’ to have work and maybe the next day they won’t, if they don’t work hard enough.
Consequently, it is not difficult to see why thousands of Senegambians cannot turn their dreams into reality. The reality is that ‘Europe is not what they tell you in Nollywood’.
According to Observatory Placido Rizzotto (2018), “beyond grave exploitative working conditions”, Italian agricultural economy has a diverse spectrum of labour exploitation. It estimates that there are between 400,000 and 430,000 workers in the Italian agricultural sector “exposed” to labour exploitation and abused by gang-masters and the agromafia. This study emphasizes that there are “more than 132,000 are in a condition of serious social vulnerability and severe occupational suffering.” These figures have not declined, if anything, the reports and studies since 2012 show progressive rise in figures. Gradually, thousands of these legally disadvantaged and vulnerable migrants unwillingly find themselves in ghettos, shanty houses derelict buildings just about survival-level in unhygienic situations of peril between status-irregularity and agricultural exploitation and gradually into contemporary slavery conditions and practices.
Contemporary slavery: living just above survival level
As per definition, agricultural ghettos are temporary encampments void of basic services such as running water, electricity, shelter, and toilets. Ghettos host vulnerable and needy youths, and Senegambians have recently populated Italian ghettos as innocent economic prisoners between the agricultural walls of Italy. Their situation looms into mind the story of Kunta Kinteh. These Senegambians are use as consistent labour supply to produce fruits and vegetables which are on local and global demand. At a time when illegal gang-mastering and “Agromafia’ play a dominating role in Italian agriculture, Italy is paradoxically one of Europes’s biggest exporters of fruits and vegetables and the world’s second largest supplier of tomatoes after the US. Consequently, a Senegambian Mama who buys Italian fruits and vegetables in the modern supermarkets of Dakar and Banjul, might be directly just contributing to the exploitation of his son, somewhere in the Italian agricultural fields as a victim of contemporary slavery and the neoliberal economy.
What produces these ghettos and what transpires in these shanty villages or tent cities, and container houses have been investigated but very little have so far been done about them. Accordingly, exploitative conditions of migrant workers in Italian agriculture has been condemned by Doctors Without Borders (Italian Mission, 2015), FLAI/CGIL and Caritas Italy (2018). Amnesty International (2018), ILO, (2018), IOM (2018) and the Global Slavery Index (2018) have all denounced degrading treatment of migrant workers in Italian agricultural fields. Meanwhile, in 2017 the European Council has called agricultural work as a pull factor for irregular migration into Italy.
Senegambian ghettos are often clandestinely located in the agricultural areas as a temporal refuge for workers and their proximity to fields is therefore, first in order of importance. They are degrading, overpopulated, and completely dark living and working environments in all spheres of life. Depending on how one looks at it, the degrading living conditions in these agricultural ghettos go beyond physical violence and psychological vulnerability. It impacts can be overwhelming and for some, damaging forever. Well, before the arrival of COVID-19 many sub-Saharan youths, women and young men were physically sick (some for months) but are yet to access proper health services. Many others are psychologically unstable and are eventually exposed to heavy drug and/or pharmaceutical abuse. Crimes and accidents, violence and even prostitution are not rare to observe in some of these ghettos.
Coronavirus unfortunately will be likely to amplify the vicious circle of troubles thousands of vulnerable migrants face in Italy. As Chronixx sings “They don’t know. And I say they don’t know. They see me smile but they don’t know what I feel inside”. Many relatives might have no idea what is going on in Europe and how the struggles of Senegambian men and women will multiply from now on under the lockdown in Italy. In a country where already in 2018 the asylum applications’ rejection rate of Senegalese immigrants were 71 % and 62 % for Gambians, well before the introduction of the ‘Salvini decree’ in 2019 that took away the category of humanitarian protection. Meaning: majority of the previously ‘life-insuring’ relatives in Europe are now without legal documents and permissions, and there is a high chance that they have just lost or will very soon lose their income. Till the coronavirus keeps Italy under full lockdown. But how long will it last? And secondly, how long can we make it?
Alagie Jinkang is a freelance scholar activist. He is a research associate at the International University College of Turin (IUC), and a Ph.D Candidate at the joint-doctorate program between the University of Palermo, Italy, and the University of Valencia, Spain. His interdisciplinary research interest cut across human rights, and international migrations, law and institutions. His doctorate thesis is on contemporary slavery and the gross exploitation of migrants workers in Italian and Spanish agriculture.