In May 2020, the Italian government adopted a scheme to regularise undocumented workers in the country. One year on, the results are difficult to see. We spoke to Giulia Capitani, Migration Policy Advisor at Oxfam Italia, and part of migration reform coalition Ero Straniero, to know more.
What did the Italian government introduce in 2020?
The Italian government introduced measures to regularise undeclared work in the agri-food and domestic work sectors. In particular, the scheme they adopted in May 2020 aimed to provide work and residence permits to undocumented migrants already present in Italy and working in the agri-food and domestic work sectors.
How did the scheme work?
The scheme followed two tracks. In the first one, employers could apply for a residence permit for work reasons for their employees. This is both for when the employee is yet to be hired, and those who are already working irregularly for the employer.
In the second track, undocumented people who had recently worked in one of these sectors could themselves apply for a six-month residence permit to look for new work.
Criteria for both tracks were extremely complicated and rigid. We feel that they were set more as a result of political negotiations, rather than to provide a clear legal framework. And people only had a couple of months to learn about the procedure and criteria and prepare and submit their applications, as the scheme came into force on 19 May and applications were only accepted from 1 June to 15 August.
Can you explain more about these criteria?
First of all, the regularisation measure only concerned agri-food and domestic workers, including domestic care workers. Other sectors that employ lots of undocumented people, like restaurants, tourism, cleaning, and construction, were left out. The workers needed to prove that they worked in one of those two sectors covered by the regularisation. If they worked in other sectors, then they wouldn’t be eligible.
There were also several other criteria for workers.
For instance, they needed to prove that they were in Italy before 8 March 2020, which is when the first national lockdown was imposed. The Ministry of Interior had clarified that several documents could be accepted as proof of this, such as certificates of attendance of Italian classes provided by civil society organisations, reports from visits to hospitals, or even phone contracts and bills. But whether they would be accepted in practice by the prefectures [a public organ which represents the Ministry of Interior at the local level] very much depended on the prefectures themselves, many of which have been very restrictive in their interpretation of the ministerial guidelines.
For the job-seeking permit, workers also needed to prove that they had had a valid residence permit, which then expired – but they were only eligible if the permit expired after 31 October 2019, not before. It’s frankly really hard to find any logic to these criteria, and it’s a headache to try and explain them to people.
One of the most absurd criteria was probably the need to prove that you live in suitable housing, which means that your place must be of a certain size, be equipped with utilities that comply with quite stringent regulations, etc. This is just crazy, because we all know that, for instance, undocumented field workers live in shacks without electricity or water. And they’re the ones who should be able to get a regularisation. This criterion by itself is the reason for many residence permits being denied.
Then there were criteria to be met by employers too. Here the biggest issue was probably the requirement to prove that they have enough financial resources to employ somebody regularly. Many employers have been scared by this requirement because they feared it would lead to fiscal checks and fines. As a result, many decided not to introduce applications for permits for their workers. This was problematic also for employers of domestic care workers because it wasn’t clear what could be counted as “employer income” when the employer is a family.
What about the procedures to apply?
Procedures too were fairly complicated and generally not always accessible to workers. First of all, the applications happened online, which means that the workers needed access to digital devices and the internet, and needed to know how to navigate them, which isn’t a reality for everyone. At the same time, the administrative processes to grant the permit happen in person: during the COVID-19 pandemic, this has meant that the whole process was slowed down because of various restrictions to movement and gathering. Chronic understaffing of the prefectures has also contributed to slowing down the process.
Applications also have to go through an approval procedure, which includes authorisations from both the police (questura) and the labour inspectorate. While we understand the need for controls, the procedure should have been simplified and more staff provided to the territorial offices, especially for the labour inspectorate local offices.
What have these criteria and procedures meant for the results of the regularisation scheme?
The latest data released by the Ministry of Interior in October – so a little more than one year after the introduction of the scheme – shows that some 38.000 residence permits have been issued, and 11.405 were rejected.
27.823 are residence and work permits under track 1.
10.088 are temporary job-seeking permits under track 2, 6.593 of which have been converted into work permits.
The vast majority of the applications remain to be processed, which is about 180.000 out of some 230.000 applications. 78.887 of these applications have almost reached the first step (summons at the Prefectures for the signature of the work contract), but the final one is still lacking (issue of the residence and work permit at the Police Office). In some municipalities, the situation is really dire and reflects all the limitations and delays we spoke about: in Rome, for instance, out of 17.371 applications, only 1.242 residence permits were requested after the convocation at the Prefecture; in Milan, only 2.551 out of 25.900 applications; in Naples, 1.780 out of 19.268 applications.
What do you make of this measure?
Well, it is obviously good news when any person can regularise their stay in Italy. But the criteria for the two tracks were so rigid and complex that we have very little hope it will result in a meaningful improvement in the living and working conditions of the majority of undocumented workers in Italy. We also don’t like how Italian governments have been using short-term regularisation programmes over the years – some twenty since 2000! – as a patch to alleviate structural issues, without actually addressing those structural issues.
This latest regularisation measure, for instance, was largely adopted to stem labour shortages in the agri-food sector, since restrictions to international travel linked to the pandemic were preventing the arrival of seasonal workers from abroad. Maybe even more importantly, the lockdown restrictions inside Italy meant that police would stop people on the street and prevent them from reaching their workplaces.
So, this measure attempted to respond to those fears, to keep the agri-food production chain alive. It does nothing to address the lack of regular labour migration pathways, or the lack of decent work permits.
What’s worse, this scheme has also created new vulnerabilities.
What are those vulnerabilities?
Well, we’ve heard of several cases where the employer was actually using the prospect of regularisation to blackmail the worker, for instance, to require extra work. In other cases, employers made workers pay the 500€ forfeit (application fee set in consideration that the employer has not been paying all their taxes) which they should pay instead when they apply to regularise workers.
What would you have liked to see instead?
First of all, we’d have liked to see a regularisation scheme that applies to all sectors, not just agri-food and domestic work. Then, fewer and more flexible criteria to apply, including regarding the need to prove one’s presence in Italy before 8 March, or the need to provide suitable housing certificates. As for the application process, workers should have had more ownership of the process rather than depending so much on employers, to reduce risks of exploitation. Plus, the whole process should have been simplified, to facilitate both access to the regularisation procedure for the potential applicants, and the public administration.
More generally, we’d like to see structural reforms of our migration policies, including establishing more decent labour migration pathways for all sectors and long-term regularisation mechanisms, instead of narrow and temporary regularisation programmes like this one.
Cover Photo: Miravision – Adobe Stock