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On 21 May, Italians were urged to refrain from eating vegetables as part of an initiative launched by the activist Aboubakar Soumahoro in an attempt to draw the public’s attention to a category of invisible workers: farm labourers. This Ivorian/Italian trade unionist, a familiar face throughout the country, is also the impetus behind a call for a general strike in Italy’s farmland, where thousands of migrants work for €3 per hour.
Often undocumented, their day-to-day life is spent confined in shanty towns established far away from cities, where they are exploited by “corporals” – a military rank used to refer to their recruiters, who have ties to organised crime – as vital cogs in the country’s food supply chain.
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For this reason, the government considers them “essential” and decided, in light of the pandemic, to grant many of them legal status. However, this measure comes with conditions: the special residence permits are granted for a maximum period of six months. In addition, the criteria set out by the decree signed on 13 May effectively exclude a significant portion of undocumented migrants.
“In this time of health crisis, doctors don’t ask patients about their nationality, status or salary. They treat their patients. In the same way, the Italian government should have saved the entire community by granting special health crisis residence permits on public health grounds, rather than based on the economic utility of these individuals, in order to give destitute undocumented migrants access to medical care,” says Soumahoro.
From the fields to activism
Born in Côte d’Ivoire, Soumahoro has been living in Italy since he was a teenager. Back then, he was also a bracciante – a day labourer – who spent his time picking tomatoes under the scorching sun in Apulia, in the southern peninsular section of Italy. The activist now serves as the head coordinator of farm workers for the Unione Sindacale di Base (USB), an independent trade union founded in 2010.
However, he is first and foremost known as a public personality in Italy and is emerging as an intellectual figure. In his book ‘Humanity in Revolt: Our Fight for Work and the Right to Happiness’, published in 2019, he champions a new vision of work, advocating for “the abolition of modern-day slavery” and the development of “a new brand of solidarity”, as Albert Camus understood it.
When asked about the thinkers who inspire him, Soumahoro lists one after the other: the economist Thomas Piketty, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, the syndicalist Giuseppe Di Vittorio, the Swiss writer Max Frisch, and Nelson Mandela. As a matter of fact, a photo of Madiba serves as his Facebook page background.
Known as one of the rare figures of the African diaspora to hold a high-level position in Italy, Soumahoro refuses to talk about his personal background, asserting that he prefers to “give his voice to those who don’t have one.”
“During the pandemic, the Italian and foreign farm workers we represent didn’t receive any social aid from the Italian state. So, I launched a GoFundMe campaign online. Many people supported us [4,000 donors] and it’s thanks to these funds that we were able to buy food and the appropriate protective gear,” he says.
Very active on social media, he regularly posts videos shot in the shanty towns where farm workers are relegated to denounce their living conditions.
“Nowadays, we’re seeing a form of institutionalised urban and cultural racialisation,” the union leader says. “For some African countries, the IMF is forecasting a growth rate higher than that of European states, and yet in these very countries people are going hungry, according to the FAO. Why?”
New left-wing star?
“The pandemic has shown that our society is fragile,” the union leader continues. “We need to work to build a new world. That also means attending to social inequalities and tackling the climate crisis in Europe and in Africa.”
Soumahoro’s uncompromising positions and activist verve have won over a swath of Italian public opinion.
In June 2018, he was even the subject of a much talked about cover of the weekly news magazine L’Espresso.
At a time when Matteo Salvini had just been appointed Minister of the Interior, the weekly’s front page displayed a photo of the trade unionist side by side with that of the leader of the Northern League, a far-right, xenophobic party, as if they were going head-to-head in an election.
Two years later, Soumahoro continues to stand up to Salvini. On 15 May, during a televised debate covering the recent decree on granting legal status to migrants without residence permits, Soumahoro invited the ex-minister to “put on a pair of boots and come join [the farm workers] in the fields.”
While portrayed by the Italian media as the “new left-wing star”, the union leader has nevertheless always – for the time being – refused to cross the Rubicon and enter the political arena. However, he concedes that he is “open to any project focused on achieving happiness and social justice, provided that it involves a collective effort.”
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