AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to Italy, where African migrants have become victims of the eurozone crisis. They're the first to be fired from factories in the northern Italy, and they're swelling the ranks of an illegal agricultural workforce in the south. Many say they're abused and underpaid in those jobs. A new law in Italy would grant work and residence permits to migrants who blow the whistle on bosses who exploit them.
But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Calabria, the law has little chance of making an impact.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: The main activity in Calabria is agriculture. Thanks to vast citrus fields, it's one of the major stops for migratory workers, mostly Africans without legal documents. They usually arrive in the town of Rosarno in the fall, in time for the orange and tangerine harvests. But it's midsummer and hundreds are already here, hoping for some meager work in the fields.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
BYLINE: A drive through the valleys around Rosarno is a contrast in images. Lush citrus trees and olive groves dotted with dilapidated shacks and abandoned houses where migrant workers live in subhuman conditions. This house has no running water, electricity or window panes.
In the scorching mid-afternoon sun, several men are stretched out on makeshift cots. Twenty-seven-year-old Yaya Gabbe is from Burkina Faso. He's been in Italy for 12 years and speaks the language.
YAYA GABBE: (Through Translator) I used work in a factory near Milan. Then the crisis came and I lost my job. So I came down south to find something to do. There's no work left for anyone in the north.
BYLINE: By losing his job, Gabbe, lost his permit to remain in Italy legally and joined the swelling ranks of hundreds of thousands of illegal workers; many of whom are exploited in what immigrant rights activists call semi-slave conditions. Here in Calabria, a migrant worker can make at most $30 working a 14-hour shift.
A few miles away, makeshift shacks in a cactus field have no toilet facilities. The scene at this shack is similar - men stretched out on cots, hoping someone will come to offer a day's work.
Karim Suruku is also from Burkina Faso.
KARIM SURUKU: (Through Translator) We have no documents, nothing. We can't go to another town, they'll ask for papers. So we stay here because they know us. We might find a little work.
BYLINE: In 2010, the town of Rosarno made international headlines when migrant workers rioted over their miserable pay and living conditions. But two years later, they keep coming back, and always in bigger numbers, laid-off from factories in the north.
The growing wave of migrants alarmed Prime Minister Mario Monti. And shortly after he came to power last fall, his government set up a tent camp that provides migrants with a place to sleep. The tents are stamped with the words Ministry of the Interior, and yet the residents are all illegal. Authorities have to look the other way.
Twenty-seven-year-old Audu Baturi arrived after a long odyssey from his native Niger. He's confused by rumors about the new law that could help him get work and residence permits, for reporting abusive treatment by employers.
AUDU BATURI: They say you have to pay a thousand euro before you to get the documents. And we say, but a thousand euro, where can we get it?
BYLINE: The new law does not require payments to get permits but does pose many problems.
Sitting at a Rosarno park bench, a Moldavian field worker won't reveal his name. But he dismisses the idea of blowing the whistle on someone who gives him work.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Say I report my employer to the police, then who's going to give me a job? Huh? Huh? You tell me.
BYLINE: Rosarno Mayor Elisabetta Tripodi, elected on a progressive civic slate, is also skeptical that the new legislation can be applied. She says the worse the economic crisis, the more the illegal economy takes over.
MAYOR ELIZABETTA TRIPODI: (Through Translator) The crisis in agriculture is getting worse and worse. Just imagine, a farmer gets paid seven cents a kilo for oranges but his production costs are 16 cents. So, of course, the illegal economy is a problem. But today, the only way to find a job in agriculture is to get paid under the table.
BYLINE: A law meant to help improve the lot of migrants is seen as abstract and inapplicable. Calabria is one Italy's poorest regions, unemployment has long been at 30 percent. With the economic crisis devastating the country, the illegal economy is rapidly expanding as one of the few means of survival.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rosarno, Calabria.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.