ROSARIO, Argentina – Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been fairly strong cohesion between Italy’s two main centers of power, the secular government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, centered on Rome’s Campidoglio, and the Vatican under Pope Francis.
The alignment hasn’t been restricted just to measures to combat the disease, but also social policy. During a news conference Wednesday, Italy’s Agriculture Minister seemed to be addressing a video a group of farm workers sent to Francis May 1, to which the pontiff himself replied five days later.
“The invisible ones will be less invisible,” said Teresa Bellanova, the agriculture minister, on Wednesday. “Those brutally exploited in fields or false cooperatives will have a residence permit. The state wins, [because it’s] stronger than criminality.”
As part of Italy’s broad plan for recovery from the coronavirus lockdown, Bellanova has been in the spotlight for proposing to grant temporary residence permits to irregular migrants and asylum seekers who harvest lemons, oranges, apples and other items in the country’s farms.
Her push to give a six-month residency permit to 600,000 people who work the fields of Italy in slave-like conditions was personal: Born in 1958 in Ceglie Messapica, a small town in the region of Puglia, Bellanova dropped out of her studies at the end of middle school. At the age of 15, she was employed as a day laborer in the fields of the Brindisi area.
Bellanova, 61, caused a sensation when she was appointed back in November due to her authenticity and humble provenance, which seemed worlds apart from the elites who dominate Conte’s second government. A union member for as long as she can remember, she was appointed Minister of Agriculture because she knew the fields better than anyone else.
After succeeding in seeing her proposal written into the recovery plan, Bellanova became visibly emotional describing it in a televised news conference.
Her original proposal was meant to regularize workers in agriculture, whom Bellanova describes as victims of savage exploitation by mafias in the Italian countryside, working in extremely precarious conditions, severely underpaid and living in slums with no electricity or running water.
Due to the exploitation, she says these day laborers are “modern day-slaves.”
The idea of the new bill is to give such workers a regular residency permit, so they can be employed through a contract, thereby freeing themselves — and the business owners who employ them — from the control of criminal organizations that often withhold their documentation.
Pope Francis added his voice to the debate, albeit without directly endorsing Bellanova’s bill, by answering a video sent to him on May 1, International Labor Day.
In the video, unionist Aboubakar Soumahoro, surrounded by others who work in slave-like condition in Italy’s fields, told the Argentine pontiff that they are the “invisible ones, the forgotten [and] exploited ones, the collectors of vegetables and fruits that also reach your [the pontiff’s] table.”
“Holy Father, your words are a balm for our plight when you say that our society, as competitive as it is, as individualistic as it is, with its excessively frenetic production rhythms, with its excessive luxury and excessive profits for some few, needs to change,” the day laborer said.
“Holy Father, your words are a balm when you say that there’s not bigger material poverty than that that forces one to work from sunset to dawn for less than a miserable $4 an hour, without a home, living in the mud of misery, without the possibility of registering in the health care system, so without a doctor,” Soumahoro told Pope Francis.
In comments to Crux before Wednesday’s voting on the bill and speaking about a video that compiles the migrant’s voice and that of the pontiff, Cardinal Michael Czerny, Francis’ right-hand man on migration, said the pope wanted to respond.
“Pope Francis received a video message from a group of poor farm workers in Italy on May 1,” Czerny said. “He responded a few days later: This ‘brings me closer to you, and helps me re-live so many dialogues’ that he has had in earlier meetings with grassroots organizations.”
“And here it happens again: the farmworkers describe their poverty and invite the Holy Father ‘not to forget us but to please speak about us, for us, and with us,’ and that’s exactly what he does in his response,” Czerny said.
The pope’s response came during his weekly audience, on May 6.
“On the occasion of May 1st, I received several messages referring to the world of work and its problems,” the pontiff said. “In particular, I was struck by that of agricultural laborers, including many immigrants, who work in the Italian countryside. Unfortunately, many times they are harshly exploited.”
“It is true that the current crisis affects everyone, but people’s dignity must always be respected. That is why I add my voice to the appeal of these workers and of all exploited workers,” Francis said at the time. “May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the center of our concern.”
Echoing the pope’s appeal, Soumahoro told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, that they were thankful for Francis’ response to their appeal by asking for the rights and the dignity of laborers “crushed by the overwhelming power” and “greed of the food giants.”
Czerny, who heads the Vatican’s migrants and refugees section that was created by Francis and is under his personal supervision, said that the exchange between the pope and the migrant laborers “is the kind of dialogue that can make our fragmented suffering world ‘a common home’ as we come up to the 5th anniversary of Laudato Si’,” meaning Francis 2015 encyclical On the Care of our Common Home.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma