By Gavin Jones
ROME – In May 2020, Italy’s then Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova wept with emotion on television as she announced a decree giving thousands of irregular immigrants the chance to work legally on farms and as domestic helpers.
A year on, however, the scheme has made almost no progress, a victim of the country’s tortuous bureaucracy and its struggle to integrate new arrivals.
Frank Agbontaen, a 30-year-old Nigerian, has been in Italy since 2016. Like many thousands, he arrived on a rickety boat from Libya.
After surviving for years on undeclared odd jobs and loose change in return for sweeping pavements, he was offered work under the regularisation scheme as a house cleaner in Rome.
He applied for the holy grail of a work permit in July. Since then he says he has heard nothing.
“I was so hopeful… I thought everything would be resolved in a few weeks or months,” Agbontaen told Reuters. “It is so frustrating, I pray to God every day for some positive news.”
He is far from alone. In Rome, by April 15 not one of more than 16,000 applicants had obtained a work permit. In Milan, just 441 had got one, out of over 26,000 requests, according to data from migrant advocacy group Ero Straniero (I was a foreigner).
In Italy, harvesting is often done by Africans and Indians. Home help is mainly entrusted to eastern European women.
In both sectors the shadow economy and worker exploitation are rife, and ex-minister Bellanova, herself a former farm labourer, had touted the project on TV as a way to make “the invisible ones …less invisible”.
“These people will have a work permit and we’ll help them to regain their identity and their dignity,” she had said.
Coinciding with the brutal first wave of Italy’s coronavirus epidemic, the scheme was also urgently needed to ensure crops got picked and the elderly received care in their homes.
As of April 15, however, of the 220,000 people nationwide who had applied to the interior ministry for a permit, just 11,000, or 5%, had received one, according to Ero Straniero.
An interior ministry spokesman told Reuters figures updated to May 31 showed 14% of applications had been approved by the ministry, which had authorised the police to grant a work permit. He was unable to say how many permits had been issued.
Only 1.5% of applications had been rejected by the ministry. Eighty-four percent had not been processed.
The dismal progress is emblematic of a chronic Italian problem: legislation proudly announced by politicians but then badly implemented, or even not implemented at all.
It is a hurdle Prime Minister Mario Draghi is well aware of as he tries to streamline state bureaucracy to enable Italy to spend more than 200 billion euros ($245 billion) of European Union funds on infrastructure projects.
Applying for the work permits required online presentation of numerous documents by the migrant and his would-be employer, who must also pay a non-refundable fee of 500 euros.
After initial applications have been filtered, the worker and employer are called for interview. If everything is in order, the worker is given a completed form that he must send to the police to receive his permit.
Asked to explain to parliament why so few applications had been processed, the government in April cited “the complexity of the procedural requirements,” with “multiple intermediate stages.”
These involve the interior ministry’s local branches known as prefectures, the police, local work inspectors, and the state social security agency.
The May 2020 decree envisaged hiring 800 temporary workers to help process the applications. The first ones were not actually taken on until March this year. The interior ministry spokesman said all 800 have now been hired and 721 deployed.
Coronavirus-induced social distancing has also slowed progress, the government said, reducing numbers that could be called for interview.
‘IT MAKESYOU GO CRAZY’
The interior ministry’s website shows Agbontaen’s application is awaiting approval from the local work inspectorate, which Reuters attempted on several days to call for information. Nobody picked up the phone.
Unlike in former colonial powers Britain or France, migrants were rare in Italy until the mid-1980s, when they began arriving in growing numbers from Africa and eastern Europe.
More than three decades on, little progress has been made in integrating them into wider society.
It is extremely rare in Italy to see a black or Asian doctor, lawyer, teacher or even bus or taxi driver. A large proportion are jobless or operate in the grey economy. They are targeted by the right-wing League, Italy’s most popular party, and its close ally Brothers of Italy.
Agbontaen, who worked as a tiler in Nigeria, sees the work permit as the key to getting a stable job in construction or a factory. Then he hopes to be joined by his wife and 10-year-old daughter, who stayed in their home country.
“All these years fighting for something you can never achieve, it makes you go crazy, it’s not a good situation,” he said. “But I am never going to give up.”