Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Border Waste: Migrant Farm Workers Wrecked by an Intoxicating Border Regime

This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. As part of this initiative the full article, on which this piece is based, will be free to access here for the next month.


Timothy Raeymaekers


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Timothy Raeymaekers. Timothy teaches economic geography and development geography at the University of Bologna. His research focuses on the political ecology of resource frontiers in Africa and the Mediterranean. 

a google earth screen shot of a ghetto
Ghetto of Mulini Matinelle: google earth screen shot

For the past eight years my research has focused on exploited migrant farm workers in Italy through a combined method of qualitative geography, ethnography, and contemporary archaeology. The results of this investigation are now published in a Geopolitics article, as well as a website project in collaboration with MIC|C (The Margin is the Centre | of Change).

Subject to severe labour exploitation, marginalized socially and spatially, the number of so-called vulnerable farm workers has risen exponentially over the past twenty years, totalling around 180-200.000 workers today. In Italy, agri-food workers are typically recruited through mediating infrastructures: illegal gangmasters (in Italian caporali), ‘cooperatives of convenience’, and, in a growing number of cases, migrant reception centres. Yet, while these mediating infrastructures are often fetishized as the main culprits of labour exploitation in agri-food chains, my recent research with Domenico Perrotta shows their functionality to what Philip McMichael calls the ‘corporate food regime’: the growing concentration of capital by a monopsony of agri-food distribution chains. In addition to recent research by the via Campesina network, by Oxfam and by UNITE, our research shows how the pandemic has increased the vulnerability of agri-food workers, in the sense that they face an increasingly hostile environment that reproduces the conditions for their labour to be extracted, while their lives are intoxicated by a repressive border regime

My recent article for Geopolitics shows two complementary dynamics in this context. First, I note how non-EU workers are increasingly trapped between their need to have territorial residence papers renewed and the impossibility to do so outside the channels imposed by corporate capital. As a result, migrant workers are forced to internalize the effects of their geographic segregation. On the one hand, agri-businesses exploit their labour, while state governments actively deny workers their fundamental rights to health, to unemployment and social benefits. Medical support groups like MSF and MEDU, who regularly criticize the Italian government’s lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers, observe the spread of pathologies related to extremely precarious health, hazards, and climatic conditions, as a result of this state neglect. On the other hand, we observe how the deterioration of migrant workers’ living conditions goes paired with a systematic externalization of the cost of labour reproduction towards workers who remain racially segregated as a consequence of the tightening grip of agribusiness on agricultural labour. In an economy that is still largely sustained by small-to-medium family enterprises, at least in Italy, farmers’ households typically enjoy the benefits of social welfare through their formal, perennial employment. But this comes at a high price for non-family members employed in the enterprise. Migrant workers instead have to bear the cost of their own welfare as well as the reproduction of their labour power. Indeed, it is important to emphasize here that farm labour does not emerge spontaneously, but it needs to be actively reproduced – through the infrastructures of unemployment, legal and health support, as well as the various activities of care that make this sort of hard and strenuous labour possible. To cover these needs, workers are forced to rely on an informal economy that offers exactly these kinds of services that should be provided by the state and by agri-food firms.

An emblematic illustration of this dynamic is the consolidation of the ghetto – a designation Sub-Saharan African workers use to define their temporary labour camps, constructed with makeshift materials, and usually far removed from the infrastructures of modern urbanity. Because of their exponential growth (the Labour Ministry report estimates their number around 150, hosting around 10.000 informal migrant workers), during the past decade, such ghettos have increasingly become a thorn in the eye of public administrations who, with varying success, eradicate and evict them. The solution state governments offer is a merely logistical one: in order to host agri-food’s temporary labour force, planning efforts have concentrated on the construction of tent and container camps managed by emergency NGOs. Even if public administrators continue to designate migrant workers ghettos as lawless zones devoid of civilization, my research shows on the contrary how these constitute a fundamental grey zone that bears the cost of a labour force that is deliberately placed outside the perimeters of the formal, industrialized economy. In that way, migrant ghettos de facto act as a subsidy to agri-food retailers who continue to reap the largest profits of capital concentration pushed forward by the current food crisis.

Rather than offering real social and health services, accommodation or access to human rights, government planning efforts tend to further intoxicate migrant’s life worlds through an active politics of dispersal and destruction. In Basilicata and Puglia, where I carried out my research, five large ghettos have been evicted in the past four years by state security forces, leading to the displacement of an estimated 1500 people (on top of the 1500 calculated by MSF in its 2018 report). Strikingly, this has not led to a formalization of workers’ employment or accommodation. On the contrary, the same makeshift dwellings usually re-appear within a matter of weeks, typically at the start of the new agricultural season.

a rusty old can
Border waste: Timothy Raeymaekers for MIC|C

In sum, I find that the constant cycle of eviction and resettlement that characterizes migrant farm workers’ living environment contributes to a further precarisation of already detrimental working and housing conditions that become both naturalized (in the sense of rendering normal, natural) and racialized (in the sense of being associated with a specific, racialized group or community). Overall, therefore, this racial naturalisation of migrant lives through the infrastructures of contemporary border politics tends to generate a debilitating mechanism, a form of slow violence, which actively deforms the characteristics of migrant’s reduced living spaces and, de facto, makes these places unliveable, while making their labour apt for capitalist exploitation. Foregrounding this relationship of wasting environments and lives that contribute to the reproduction of capitalist supply chains, in my view, offers the potential to create a new platform to rethink, and to resist, the tight relation between agri-food capitalism and the Anthropocene.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

T. Raeymaekers. (2023) Border Waste: Migrant Farm Workers Wrecked by an Intoxicating Border Regime. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/04/border-waste-migrant-farm-workers-wrecked-intoxicating. Accessed on: 17/04/2024

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