“Social distancing is a privilege.” Words that entered us and we have kept within us for months.
To tell her, like a joke – with all the naked truth that only irony passes – was the Italian-Ivorian trade unionist and former laborer Aboubakar Soumahoro in one of our first, cordial chats over the phone. He, by train, bus, in the middle of the fields or in a so-called “ghetto” –– as some still call them (a term that in America would be rejected as “politically incorrect”). We in our home in Washington, DC, separated by social distancing in the semi-lockdown that Trump’s U.S. has never seriously imposed. Since everything is “remote” – I thought – why not make a documentary in Italy, remotely? So also thought my colleague Carola Mamberto, another Italian journalist and producer in Washington.
So, together and improvising, we understood that we wanted to narrate the struggle of laborers and migrants seeking voice. The story was urgent and had an international dimension that resonated with many of the tensions that have grown in the United States in recent years. Immigration, racial inequality, labor and health rights. Above all the paradox of being “essential workers” and deprived of all rights, from health care to the privilege of being able to work from home and protect yourself from infection.
According to recent statistics, only one in four Americans worked from home
. The numbers now, in the pandemic, are probably different because many have adopted teleworking or smart working, but still give the idea of who can benefit from more flexibility in the job. According to these data, among 25 percent of the wealthiest, nearly two out of three people work from home. The same privilege is only given to about one in ten people in the 25 percent least wealthy population. In short, the poorest strata are less likely to be able to work from home. And the black and ‘brown’ (Latin American) population, not surprisingly, are the most affected by Covid.
“There is a trade unionist, a new leader, who I feel could be our guide,” Carola told me. And I felt a vibration in his voice, an emotion that convinced me. That same evening we sent our request to Aboubakar Soumahoro, and he – kindly, formally but immediately intimate – guaranteed us access and trust.
From there they started two months of uninterrupted work. Making a documentary is an artisanal operation. Especially if “homemade” as we did it. During the lockdown. At a distance. I shut myself in the room, writing and reporting on Italy, with two children knocking on the door for help with their homework. Carola in her basement, directing the remote shooting with me, while editing the piece by herself, on her computer, between an interruption and the other of the children.
Aboubakar allowed us to follow him on a short trip to Puglia, when – challenging the lockdown and travel restrictions – he brought masks and food to the laborers, hungry and out of work, while the asparagus began to rot in the fields. It gave us a short but unique access to the cross-section of life of nameless migrants, at a time when all of Italy was locked at home. But what he gave us – most of all – was the opportunity to document his work as a ‘documentary maker’. When we saw his videos, shot on his cell phone, and he himself asked questions to the laborer behind him who candidly and in excellent Italian says “They pay you 4 euros an hour, 3 and a half euros an hour, without contracts and without their rights “ it was clear to us.
His work had to be documented, while he himself documented the life and work of exploited migrants, in conditions of almost slavery, in the camps and tent camps of the South. He had to use his own materials. His own videos, edited with our high resolution images (shot in 4K remotely for us by a local DP from Foggia, Sergio Grillo) that shoot Aboubakar while taking a selfie with the laborers, or placing them behind him, like a director on set, to film their denunciation chorus.
The laborers. women, temporary workers, the discriminated, the unemployed. All together in the square of the Popular States on July 5, to make our voice heard in politics. Because now we have to overcome individualism and discord, defend common needs and build a movement that returns to ignite hope
“We are human beings, not arms! We are human beings, not arms” say the laborers in a video on Facebook, one of many who have attracted the attention of 150,000 followers and have become a powerful narrative tool. Powerful because it comes from there. It comes from the fields. It comes from a worker who admits “I was born of this misery”, who came out of it graduating in Sociology at the University of Naples, and knows what sweat means and splitting his back for 14 hours a day for a few coins to share with the corporal on duty. And he also knows that there is another way. There are rights that must be guaranteed to everyone, without distinction of origin, race and religion, and it is time to claim them.
The history of the exploitation of migrants – whether they are laborers, bricklayers, housekeepers or carers who dedicate their lives to contributing to our well-being without a shred of an employment contract – is an old story in Italy. And also their exploitation and extortion by local mafias.
But what seemed different in this story – and important to document at this moment – is that there is now a leader, there is a movement, there are institutions ready to listen. Like the Mayor of Milan Giuseppe Sala – who says: «Personally I expose myself on this battle of Aboubakar because I find it right and because at this stage, in this crisis that we are experiencing, we must really try to reflect on how we can change the what’s this”. Or like Pope Francis, who on 6 May said he was particularly impressed by the demands of laborers, and in particular, migrants, and invited “to make the crisis an opportunity to put the dignity of the person and the dignity of work at the center . ” But also like the many young people, millennials and not, ready to go to the streets defying the virus, also inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests against the racial injustices that are dividing America, one of all the arrest and murder of George Floyd. All this while – ‘thanks’ to Covid who is forcing everyone to reassess priorities, inequalities and privileges, including migration policies – for the first time since 1965 polls say that the majority of Americans, 34 percent against 28 percent , they want more migrants, not less. (
As confirmed by a new “poll” of July 1st
The “regularization” of May 13 included in the Relaunch Decree did not change things compared to the critical situation that we captured at the time of our filming. If we are going to film in the fields, now that the lockdown is over, we know that we will still see the same story. “Our branches say 90 percent of the laborers will be excluded from regularization,” said Aboubakar. Even if the numbers are not clear, and if this is still a first step towards a possible, gradual regularization, it is evident that it will take time to unhinge a whole system of exploitation, absence of controls, and lack of transparency that has been the master for years, in the fields and along the entire food chain.
Now between Italy and the United States the situation has reversed. Italy has flattened the Covid curve and will reopen schools, while America is collapsing under its inequalities, with nearly 130,000 deaths to date, 2.7 million infections, and peaks of over 50,000 new cases per day. But our concern for this story – for the condition of nameless and homeless migrants who have been circulating like ghosts in our country for years as welcoming as they are not prepared for true integration, and for the need to restore transparency in the agricultural supply chain –– remains .
It is the concern for an Italian story, but also a global one, which has parallels and resonances with America, where 2.5 million agricultural workers – including many undocumented or irregular immigrants from Latin America – are exploited in seasonal field work, in California or other rural states, and are among the groups most at risk of coronavirus. And where the black revolt reached a point of no return, the energy and mass of a new Civil Rights Movement where, for the first time, unlike in ’68, blacks and whites march side by side, despite the virus, or maybe just for that.
Will the laborers of the world – all migrants, even those who cannot be labeled “essential workers” – go out of the dark? Will Italians, politicians and non-politicians, young and old, create the conditions, laws, structures and mentality for a more forward-looking immigration policy that guarantees respect for workers’ rights and not? That allows migrants to rent a house, to register with the registry office, to have health care, and to their children to obtain citizenship? Are Italians who consume fruit, vegetables and coveted products all over the world ready to ask for a food license, and pay the right price for what they bring to the table, without crushing farmers and laborers?
Our questions, and our documentary, remain open.
* Diana Ferrero and Carola Mamberto are the authors of the documentary “The Invisibles”
produced and distributed by the Doha Debates global platform