ROME (Reuters) – Italy plans to give work permits to thousands of irregular migrants to help farms deal with the Covid-19 epidemic that has cut the flow of cheap labour from abroad, a political source said on Tuesday.

The politically sensitive move, earlier reported in Italian media, was immediately attacked by right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini, whose League party has founded its success on a strong anti-migrant platform.

Agriculture lobbies have warned Italy will have to throw away huge amounts of fruit and vegetables because there is nobody to pick them, worsening the effects of a shutdown costing the food sector 7 billion euros ($7.58 billion).

The influx of seasonal workers to help on farms has been halted by the block on travel into Italy since its outbreak came to light in February. It has so far killed more than 29,000 people.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese is ready to offer temporary permits to some 200,000 irregular migrants currently jobless or living in the shadow economy, to work in agriculture, the ministry source told Reuters.

The move is also intended to help in the fight against the coronavirus. “If someone falls ill we need to test them and it’s difficult to do this if we don’t even know their name,” the source said.

Some 560,000 of the 6.2 million migrants living in Italy in 2019 were irregular, according to the most recent annual report of the Ismu Foundation, a think tank specialized in migration issues.

The regularisation will probably be included in a broader decree aimed at stimulating the economy, which the government is expected to approve later this week, the source said.

“They are working on a huge legalization of irregular migrants … madness, we will try to stop them in any way,” League leader and former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter.

($1 = 0.9232 euros)

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Gavin Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)