Instability caused by the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and the subsequent Arab Spring of 2011 created the conditions which saw the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, a conflict which saw NATO jets carry out bombing in support of militias.
In Bordering the surplus population across the Mediterranean: Imperialism and unfree labour in Libya and the Italian countryside, Dr Lucia Pradella and Dr Rossana Cillo argue that, after the fall of Gaddafi, there followed a system of “neo-colonial extraction”. This system caused widespread impoverishment and social insecurity, and empowered militias involved in fuel, weapon and human smuggling.
The hardening of attitudes from EU member states such as Italy towards the subsequent increase in numbers of emigrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, the paper argues, further empowered these militias, “boosting a brutal system of detention, extortion and forced labour that both traps immigrants in Libya and pushes them towards Europe”.
Through this system, Dr Pradella and Cillo said, “Libya has come to play a role of labour reserve for Italy”.
An increasing number of immigrants arriving from Libya were forced to apply for asylum and work in the agricultural sector in Italy, with exploitation and gangmasters stripping workers of rights steadily over the last decade.
The paper notes: “The decline in arrivals since July 2017 depends on the direct collaboration between the Italian state and armed groups, and on the Italian navy extending its operations into Libyan waters in a clearly neo-colonial fashion.”
Drawing on in-depth interviews with immigrant workers, trade-unionists and anti-racism activists, the paper also notes that immigrants’ experiences in Libya play a disciplining role, as they make conditions in Italy look like an improvement. Employers use this situation to put workers in competition with each other, with labour conditions worsening as a result.
But agricultural immigrant workers have also used their newly acquired freedoms to improve their conditions, and oppose exploitation, structural racism and the gangmaster system.
Dr Pradella and Dr Cillo said: “While these workers appealed to Italian workers for solidarity, the narrative of a ‘migration crisis’ reinforced racist and divisive arguments, shifting attention away from global power relations and the role of imperialism in the general worsening of labour and living conditions in Italy.
“If this helps explain the present divisions and weaknesses of the labour movement in the country, it also indicates the political questions that need addressing in order to realise its potential strength.”