They mostly come from the Romanian region of Moldova, and since the early 2000s they have migrated to Sardinia, where they are employed in the agro-pastoral sector. A phenomenon analysed by anthropologist Sergio Contu

19/07/2018 -  Francesca Rolandi

Some rural contexts owe their survival to the migrant labour force – this is the case of Sardinia's sheep and goat farming sector and Romanian immigration. We talked about the phenomenon with anthropologist Sergio Contu, currently a subject expert at the University of Cagliari, where he deals with biographical documentation and phenomena of social and cultural change related to work and migration.

In your research, you define the Romanian presence in Sardinia's breeding sector as a migratory niche. What do you mean by this concept?

The concept of migratory niche was introduced in the early nineties by sociologist Roger Waldinger to designate a sector of employment that, although potentially accessible to every migrant worker, is progressively monopolised by a specific group. With time, some productive sectors, national or regional, due to internal structural characteristics or contingent conditions, become – as in the case of Romanian migrants involved in Sardinian sheep and goat farming – occupational niches in which a potential migrant will find employment thanks to the intermediation of those already included in that specific niche.

In the context of Sardinian sheep and goat farming – in which the extensive pasture practiced on a strongly fragmented, dispersed land order implies the almost constant presence of man – the work required is heavy both materially and psychologically, and translates into an environmental and working condition of almost total isolation. The only social channels of those who have chosen or found themselves in this particular employment situation are limited to those who live and work in this socio-economic context. It is within these minimum ratios that the migrant shepherd manages to build a social network that can produce contacts with new labour – a recall mechanism that has progressively produced the silent replacement of the indigenous workforce, no longer available to perform this work, with the more compliant migrant labour force.

This general process of substitution has not changed the ethos of dependency relationships which usually informally regulates the Sardinian agro-pastoral world but, in a broad perspective, conforms to the current development of more dispersed migratory forms, where work placement is almost exclusively performed within specific production niches.

From which original context are the migrants active in the sector in Sardinia?

Many come from villages and small rural communities located within a radius of just over 50 kilometers from Galaţi, capital of the homonymous province, in the historical region of Moldova, the easternmost of the seven historical macroregions in which the country is divided. On the socio-economic level, the region as a whole is characterised by high rates of unemployment and poverty, affecting above all the prevailing rural population, a strong lack of infrastructure, and an extremely limited presence of large production and commercial centres. Moldova is the historical region that has registered the highest rates of international migration, as well as the one where Italy is most chosen as final destination.

What is the genesis of this migratory relationship that connects Sardinia with Romania?

At the end of the nineties, after almost ten years of transition and lost hopes of economic recovery for the country, temporarily working abroad had become an almost ordinary practice for a growing number of Romanians. A real life strategy, based on a circulatory commute where the first stay is followed for several years by round-trip cycles, temporally bound by the expiring of residence permits, or pragmatically determined by the employment opportunities encountered.

At the beginning of the new millennium, when Romanian migration became numerically significant, saturating the usual integration contexts and job opportunities, Sardinia began – with a certain degree of diffidence – to emerge among the different target regions. A new space of potential opportunities, far from the scenarios hitherto touched, far from the competition of the labour market of the big cities of the north and central Italy or of the large agricultural areas of the south. A space physically distant, but culturally close to many Tuscany and Lazio farms in which many Romanian migrants had worked for several years, often owned by Sardinians who, in the fifties and seventies, had been protagonists of an important internal migratory flow of rural nature.

These companies have been acting as a bridgehead for the first migration routes that have ventured beyond Tirreno, catapulting on the island those very first migrants who laid the ground for the Romanian presence in some rural areas of the island. A presence that today is no longer limited to sheepfolds and farms, but which has been able to find new opportunities and integration contexts.

Why were Romanian migrants considered particularly suitable for work in farms?

Skills and good attitude only partly explain what, in a relatively short period of time, has become a substantial preference of Sardinian farmers for Romanian workers. What emerges from the analysis of the rhetoric of the owners of many companies, parallel to the praise of reliability, self-denial, and other virtues that seem to characterise the migrants hired, is a veiled racial and cultural categorisation that values cultural affinity with white Europeans, who are, after all, "Christians like us".

Ten years ago, the figure of the Romanian migrant was the subject of a xenophobic media campaign, while today the dominant discourse is Islamophobia...

The first serious watershed between what are basically the two representations of the Romanian presence in Italy was the tragic death of a woman from Rome, 47, attacked and killed by a Transylvanian labourer of Roma origin, in October 2007, near the Tor di Quinto train station, in the north-east of the capital. A tragic event that, from the narrow realm of local news, exploded at the national and international media level, facing the country with what began to be called "security emergency". This episode threw a heavy shadow on the public representation of what was by then the first migrant community in the country.

The facts of Tor di Quinto brought to light a rhetoric and a representation process – shared by politicians, mass-media, and ordinary citizens – built on two mirror registers. On the one hand, good integration and what was essentially experienced as a real social and cultural compatibility between Italians and Romanians, represented as zealous, punctual, and tireless workers. On the other hand, suspicion and progressive criminalisation that saw the Romanian citizens present in Italy enveloped in a blanket of hostility and contempt, represented as violent, bloodthirsty criminals like other migrant communities of Balkan origin.

In this context, what did Romania's entry into the European Union represent?

A distinctive feature of Romanian immigration in Italy has been the constant presence of irregulars. Exception made for amnesties, flows decrees, and the resulting regularisation procedures, until Romania's official entry into the EU a Romanian citizen had no chance of legally entering Italy for work reasons. Only since January 2002, within Romania's EU accession negotiations and with the abolition of the entry visa requirement in the Schengen area, did Romanian citizens get the opportunity to stay in a member country for a period of time not exceeding three months.

Following this new possibility, many irregular Romanian migrants in Italy were now people who had entered the country regularly, but remained beyond the time prescribed by law. Unlike their compatriots who had obtained regularisation, these were considered irregular migrants.

The difference between being regular and irregular concretely defines every aspect of the migrant's daily life, from freedom of movement, linked to the constant risk of being traced and expelled in case of control by the police, to employment and housing options. Irregular Romanian immigrants lived, at least from the second half of the nineties up to the first months of 2007, in a constant condition of "deportability". This constant sense of vulnerability was enhanced by the abuse and intimidation by all those subjects who, for speculation purposes, had an interest in maintaining a constant quota of irregular migrant workers within the Romanian migrant community.

These unscrupulous subjects, on the occasion of the amnesty related to Law n.189/2002 (Bossi-Fini), found a way of speculating even on regularisation procedures. According to the law, every employer had the chance to regularise an immigrant worker previously hired informally, as long as he or she had been in the country since June 2002 and had been employed for at least three months. In fact, many employers denied the possibility of regularisation or forced the workers to bear the costs themselves, while others, for payment, offered regularisations that would never be realised.

Romania's entry into the EU has certainly changed for the better the position and living conditions of Romanian migrants, but certainly cannot erase the indelible traces that over twenty years of migration experience left in the lives of thousands of men and women.

What is the prevailing narrative of migrants themselves on their migratory path and how has it changed in the last decade?

Although the migration of the Romanian community is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to that of other national groups, there is a considerable differentiation between migratory projects and the organisation of mobility of the first migrants and those who have migrated over the last decade, for which the circularity and the "installation in mobility", as Dana Diminescu highlighted, have consolidated as everyday organising strategies. This is because, compared to the first migrants whose stay abroad led inexorably to clandestinity or repatriation, today we are faced with a continuum of possibilities including permanent emigration without return or with sporadic returns for the holidays; long-term migration, alternating stays with short returns to Romania; and seasonal migration that alternates within a year brief or longer stays abroad with brief or longer stays in Romania.

For those who experienced the first development stages of this system of practices, the migratory choice was narratively presented as a true family project, triggered by a difficult process of political and economic transition after the end of the regime. In many cases, the only goal for these first migrants was the accumulation of a small capital that would allow them to support those who remained. Clearly there were substantial differences between married and unmarried men, but the narratives of these early migrants typically show the migration project as deeply anchored at the level of the local community.

With the development of a second, larger migration flow during the first decade of the new century, there was a progressive change in the narrative, no longer pervaded by that sense of urgency. Today, young migrants are substantially more attentive to the quality of employment, housing, and potential social inclusion, which are starting to become criteria for choosing the hypothetical destination. This new attitude, substantially a product of free movement, marks a profound change in perspective on the constraints of the farming occupational niche, with its uninviting workload and social integration prospects. Today, this can only be a temporary employment condition, or a temporary alternative to keep alive one's migration project in a phase of forced unemployment.

How does this migration project fit into the strategies to cope with the imbalances of transition in Romania?

While at first the strategies of domestic units coincide with those of the migrants, in the long run we are witnessing what can be read as a dissociation and individualisation of migrant projects of younger migrants, constantly looking for an opportunity to improve one's own standard of living and personal status. As a consequence, economic attitudes expressed by social relations also change. Initially, when migrants left, they had no doubts about their bonds of economic solidarity with the members of the domestic group of origin. But later, with the emergence of new needs regarding personal accommodation and the gradual insertion and participation in the social life of the settlement context, young migrants increasingly feel economic solidarity as a burden.

On another level, what has changed is actually the character of the exchange between parents and children, that is not severed, but persists through new forms of adjustment. If, on the one hand, we go towards the end of economic dependence on the various components of the group and the disappearance of the obligation to support, there remain totally disinterested forms of generosity and exchange, so to speak.

What impact does the migratory project have on gender roles and family relationships? What role does family reunification play? Is there a complementarity between female care work and male work in the farming sector?

The migratory choice and the modification of the aims and contents of the economic action have understandably been reflected in the gendered division of labour and what used to be the traditional role of women. Also in this case, it is possible to identify both a periodisation in the transformation processes and the emergence of different solutions according to family contexts.

The first migratory flows did not modify, but rather reinforced, the traditional forms of division of labour that in rural areas were still characterised, despite the equal opportunity policies professed by the regime, by functionally distinct spheres. This persisting distinction saw men emigrate and women remain to administer and preserve the domestic space. In these phases, in which the migration of men led to a progressive feminisation of poverty, it was always the woman who, with her presence, formally and informally made up for the inadequacy of the institutions in terms of healthcare, education, and welfare services. Women's management skills were thus at the centre of the delicate mechanism of mediation between available resources, savings, and the needs of all family members, especially young children.

Things began to change between 2002 and 2003, with a strong feminisation of flows. As regards initial female migration strategies, when we are not dealing with family reunification, the most widespread practice, especially close to the abolition of the entry visa, was temporary, short-term migration. In many cases, women were employed in housework or personal assistance in contexts that needed labour, even – unexpectedly – in rural Sardinia, characterised by strong family ties. This demand – which reflects a national trend, closely connected to the socio-demographic changes that have affected Italian society over the last three decades – represented a key opportunity for female inclusion in a typically male migratory context.

It should be noted that in the case of salaried farmers family reunions are often partial, as couples, for the particular housing-occupational conditions, cannot live together. This dynamic, however, has not prevented wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law from finding employment in the rural communities where their male relatives work.

The entire farming sector in Italy is now largely dependent on the contribution of migrant labour, and is one of the areas most characterised by situations of exploitation, sometimes bordering on slavery. What is the situation of the Romanian community in Sardinia?

In the very early stages of migration, the migrant is strictly bound to the individuals – the intermediary and the employer in the first place – who have made migration possible in the first place. This dependency, generally favoured by financial and language issues, creates extreme vulnerability. In this extremely delicate phase, practices of exploitation and oppression can arise. However, and despite the critical issues of the island's primary sector, the degree of social and occupational integration is generally consistent with the expectations of migrants who chose or found themselves in this particular employment condition.

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