Food Or Safety? Lockdown And Migrant Laborers In Italy

Soldier in Mondragone, southern Italy, on June 30.
Soldier in Mondragone, southern Italy, on June 30.
Mattia Feltri

Even as the total number of cases of COVID-19 decreased In Italy, an outbreak flared up in the southern province of Caserta among migrant agricultural laborers. Writing in the Italian daily La Stampa, Mattia Feltri recounts how, once again, the pandemic is bringing long-simmering tensions, economic inequity and social injustice to the surface.

Almost all of the agricultural laborers of Mondragone, in the southern Italian province of Caserta come from Novi Zagora, Bulgaria. They were lured to Italy by human traffickers, thinking they would make decent money here. They stay in large, run-down tower blocks formerly owned by Cirio, the Italian multinational known for its canned vegetables and sauces. They come down from their apartments at 4:30 a.m. to be loaded into trucks and taken to fields owned by Italian farmers, where they pick green beans.

Their pay ranges between 2 and 4 euros per hour. Or rather, the men's pay does: Women make less, between 1 and 2 euros per hour. Since they can't leave the kids home alone, sometimes they take them along for the day. But the children are not strong and can't work long hours, so the pay goes down to 0.50 to 0.75 euros an hour.

The Bulgarians go out anyway because if they don't work, they can't eat.

The normal workday lasts seven or eight hours, but if the harvest is abundant, it can reach 12 hours. The laborers make a bit more money and are happy. Recruiters pay them in the evening. On a good day, husband and wife can make 50 euros, from which the recruiters subtract a cut from themselves, to cover transport fees and rent.

Unions have been denouncing this exploitation — or slavery — for a long time, and because they can't seem to change the situation, they wait outside the tower blocks in the morning, at least to hand out water bottles and caps to protect the laborers from the scorching sun.

And now, a coronavirus cluster has broken out in the apartments where they live: People can't go in or out at least until July 7. But the Bulgarians go out anyway because if they don't work, they can't eat. The other Mondragone residents protested against it, and a few incidents of violence flared. An angry crowd cordoned off the perimeter. Chairs were thrown from a balcony, and rocks flung the other way, smashing windows. So the Italian government decided to send in the army, committed as always to enforcing the law.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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