The Rise of a New Proletariat – Global Issues


  • Opinion by Daud Khan (Rome)
  • Inter Press Service

I have argued before that no one really wants immigration to stop, or immigrants to leave. What the anti-immigrant parties want to do is create a new subclass of low-wage workers who have no rights and no political power. (Europe’s shift to the far right and its impact on immigration | Inter Press Service ( a “new immigrant proletariat” would increase the profits of those who employ such immigrants and also raise the general standard of living of the general population.

Recent events in Italy seem to confirm my hypothesis that low-paid illegal work is deeply rooted in the system.

On June 17, a farm worker on a farm south of Rome was seriously injured and subsequently died. Satnam Singh’s right arm became entangled in a piece of farm machinery and was severed. The farm owner placed the severed arm in a box, placed the box and the injured Satnam Singh outside his house and drove away. Satnam was eventually taken to hospital, but the delay in getting medical attention meant that it was not possible to save his life.

What emerged from the subsequent investigation was that Satnam had no residence permit, no employment contract and was paid a gratuity for backbreaking work in the sweltering heat and biting cold. The Minister of Agriculture was quick to condemn the event that led to Satnam Sigh’s death and the police are prosecuting the farm owner. However, the Minister was also reminded that the Italian agricultural sector is viable, dynamic and law-abiding and should not be criminalized for a single unfortunate event.

However, studies and surveys, mainly conducted by trade unions, contradict his claim. In the case of the agricultural sector, an estimated 230,000 of the approximately 1 million workers are illegal 1. Like Satnam, they are poorly paid and treated badly. There are also allegations of various forms of abuse, as well as the widespread use of amphetamines and painkillers to make them work harder.

Furthermore, various studies also reveal how the system, which is supposedly aimed at creating more legal and controlled immigration, actually works to ensure a large supply of illegal immigrants. The system works as follows:

Under Italian law (the Bossi-Fini Act of 2002), Italian employers can ask foreign workers to enter Italy legally to work in specific sectors, including agriculture and tourism. The implicit agreement is that once they are in Italy, the employer sponsoring their entry will provide them with an employment contract and wages that are in line with industry standards.

In many cases, however, the sponsoring employer does not show up to pick up the workers, let alone offer them a job or a contract. The arriving workers find themselves in a foreign country where they do not speak the language, without a job and without papers. The phenomenon is particularly acute in some regions of Italy, such as Campagna (around Naples), where only 3% of workers who enter Italy legally actually sign a contract with the employer who sponsored their entry into the country.

This is where the so-called “contractors” come in. These contractors pick up the newly arrived workers and provide them with immediate help and assistance. They then act as middlemen to arrange jobs for them at wages that are a fraction of what Italians doing the same work would earn. Furthermore, these unscrupulous contractors skim off a large portion of what the workers earn by renting them a house and providing transportation to and from work.

And all this is happening under everyone’s eyes, including those of various local and national authorities. For example, authorities know which companies have sponsored foreign workers to enter Italy. They also know how many employment contracts these companies have signed with these immigrant workers. Recent reports show that in the Naples region, 22,000 sponsored workers have entered the country, but none of them have signed a contract.

Similarly, the owner of the farm where Satnam Singh died had told local authorities that he had only one tractor and no workers – facts that were patently untrue, but no one ever bothered to check.

These and other facts are often well covered in reports prepared by trade unions or investigative journalists, especially after an accident or untoward event has occurred. Moreover, there is nothing really mysterious about what is happening. You only have to drive around the agriculturally rich areas around Rome or in central or northern Italy to see an army of workers from South Asia tending the livestock or toiling in the fields that supply the city with fresh fruit and vegetables. In more southern parts of Italy, it is young men from Africa who pick oranges and tomatoes.

Similarly, in cities like Rome and Milan, there are armies of illegal immigrants working as “riders” delivering food to people’s homes; working as cooks, dishwashers and waiters in restaurants and bars; or working as cleaners or carers in people’s homes.

The system seems to suit everyone and if every now and then a Satnam Singh dies, so be it.


Daud Khan is a retired UN official based in Rome. He has degrees in economics from LSE and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in environmental management from Imperial College London.

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