Worker Shortages Problematic for Italian Farms as Harvest Nears

The usual influx of seasonal workers who come to harvest apples, grapes and olives in Italy has been interrupted. Travel restrictions related to Covid-19 has politicians and farmers worried that key crops will not be picked in time.

By Paolo DeAndreis
Aug. 27, 2020 09:35 UTC

The short­age of for­eign agri­cul­tural work­ers has many farm­ers, wine and olive oil pro­duc­ers wor­ried ahead of the 2020 har­vest in Italy.

In cer­tain areas, includ­ing the olive-pro­duc­ing dis­trict of Belice, Sicily, farm­ers are strug­gling to recruit the 4,000 for­eign work­ers usu­ally required to har­vest almost 18,000 hectares (44,500 thou­sand acres) of olive groves.

The har­vest­ing sea­son approaches and regional farm­ers will need for­eign work­ers. Some coun­tries where they come from, though, are con­sid­ered high-risk due to the pan­demic.- Alberto Cirio, pres­i­dent, Piedmont

Ninety per­cent of those work­ers are cur­rently unavail­able as the har­vest rapidly approaches. Some experts fear that many apples, grapes and olives may not be col­lected as a result.

Most observers attribute the labor short­age to the Covid-19 con­tain­ment mea­sures, which con­tinue to hin­der inter­na­tional travel. Workers com­ing from red-listed coun­tries can­not freely move to Italy for the har­vest. Others must first undergo com­plex pro­ce­dures that have so far kept the num­bers of incom­ing work­ers to a his­toric low.

See Also:2020 Harvest Updates

On top of the labor short­age, the Italian gov­ern­ment is also try­ing to crack down on ille­gal employ­ment in the agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

While the process has slowed down the entrance of for­eign farm work­ers to the coun­try, the gov­ern­ment argues that it is espe­cially nec­es­sary, given the cur­rency health cri­sis, to ensure a safe work­place for sea­sonal farm work­ers.

In recent weeks, more than 200,000 work­ers have filed for work autho­riza­tion from the Italian Ministry of Agriculture.

All of them now have a reg­u­lar work per­mit, includ­ing 13,000 for­eign cit­i­zens, who can now count on a legal green card,” Italian agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, Teresa Bellanova, said.

She added that the min­istry is also about to release a dig­i­tal net­work that helps work­ers find avail­able jobs and assists in arrang­ing trans­port.

While new funds have been directed to oil mills and olive oil pro­duc­ers hit by Xylella fas­tidiosa in the region of Puglia, the short­age and well­be­ing of sea­sonal work­ers is also a rel­e­vant issue for many local author­i­ties.

In the olive-pro­duc­ing dis­trict of Terlizzi, not far from Bari, the munic­i­pal coun­cil is offi­cially con­sid­er­ing a new approach to accom­mo­date migrant work­ers. City coun­cil­man Vito D’Amato empha­sized how most work­ers dur­ing the har­vest sea­son end up liv­ing in spon­ta­neous set­tle­ments, ghet­tos or tents in com­plete iso­la­tion.”

“[The pan­demic] has high­lighted their cru­cial role in agri­cul­ture,” he added. It is of the utmost impor­tance to rec­og­nize that role with safe­guards and real action.”

The migrant work­ers and the safety mea­sures are also the core of a heated debate in Belice.

Franco Lombardo, head of the local olive trans­for­ma­tion com­pany Geolive, told the CastelVetrano news mag­a­zine that tons of olives, includ­ing the famous Nocellara del Belice, are at risk of rot­ting on the trees.

The same wor­ries were echoed by Felice Crescente, head of the local agri­cul­tural labor inspec­tor agency, who explained that the labor short­age involves the whole of Italy and lots of dif­fer­ent prod­ucts, from toma­toes to olives.” She added that the issue should be strate­gi­cally addressed since it involves not only migrant work­ers but also sea­sonal [Italian] work­ers.”

However, some pro­duc­ers believe that the focus on accom­mo­dat­ing for­eign farm work­ers is more so treat­ing the symp­toms than solv­ing the under­ly­ing prob­lems.


The head of a coop­er­a­tive of agri­cul­tural work­ers in cen­tral Italy argued that if wages were higher, fewer migrant work­ers would be needed and those that did come would find bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions.

I am not sure we are tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the har­vest­ing costs in the new sce­nario,” Graziano Giovane told Olive Oil Times. Low or very low pay is one of the main his­tor­i­cal rea­sons that keep Italian and other work­ers away from the fields, as well as the liv­ing con­di­tions many have to face dur­ing the sea­son, espe­cially if they come from abroad dur­ing this health emer­gency.”

If we con­sider olive har­vest­ing, for instance, I won­der how much farm­ers and pro­duc­ers are able to pay work­ers now that mar­ket prices are low,” he added. “[These same pro­duc­ers are also being] asked to be more effi­cient in order to ensure a safe work­place. We need a broader vision to win this bat­tle.”

The farm­ing asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti, has also asked for the adop­tion of a new nation­wide strat­egy for agri­cul­tural work­ers com­ing from abroad. The asso­ci­a­tion has lob­bied for quick coro­n­avirus test­ing oper­a­tions on arrival for all migrant work­ers in order to let them imme­di­ately reach their des­ti­na­tions.

In one of the most rel­e­vant wine pro­duc­ing dis­tricts in Italy, Veneto, local author­i­ties, farm­ers and work­ers asso­ci­a­tions have just set up a new unit to quickly screen work­ers for Covid-19.

Francesco Benazzi, head of the local pub­lic health office in Treviso, told local media that start­ing this week, we are ready to make the tests avail­able to all agri­cul­tural coop­er­a­tives that employ work­ers com­ing from abroad.”

Given the num­bers involved, the pres­i­dent of Piedmont, Alberto Cirio, has alerted local author­i­ties in order to ensure a coor­di­nated effort in mon­i­tor­ing the flow of sea­sonal work­ers com­ing from abroad, specif­i­cally from Covid-19-hit east­ern European coun­tries.

The har­vest­ing sea­son approaches and regional farm­ers will need for­eign work­ers,” Cirio said. Some coun­tries where they come from, though, are con­sid­ered high-risk due to the pan­demic. We all need to work together to mon­i­tor and quickly iden­tify any risk.”

Coldiretti asked for action because work­ers are needed now in north­ern Italy for the apple har­vest. Shortly after­wards it will be time to har­vest wine grapes in the rest of the coun­try.

Once all the apples and grapes have been picked, the olive har­vest will be in full motion.


Related Articles