Italy could offer temporary residency permits to 600,000 undocumented migrant workers to pick fruit and vegetables this summer.
Spearheading the effort is Teresa Bellanova, the liberal agriculture minister, who says the mainly African migrant workers “are imprisoned in the ghettos like mice”.
The proposal, described by critics as an “amnesty”, would also require farm owners to pay taxes for them and offer contracts. Ms Bellanova has threatened to quit if her plan fails to take off.
While lowly-paid farmhands often come from Eastern Europe, the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing travel lockdown has led to fears there may not be enough workers for the spring and summer.
Ms Bellanova said time is running out and wants the legislation passed this week. She has argued it is time the government takes responsibility for people “who have been in our country and probably workers for years”.
"If this doesn't happen, the state becomes not only an accomplice but also a promoter of the illegality in which these workers are forced,” she added.
But the plan has attracted strong criticism from right-wing figures. The Five Star Movement, the largest party in parliament, is also divided over the plan. Its coalition partner, the centre-left Democratic Party is broadly in favour of the move.
Matteo Salvini, the hardline anti-migration former interior minister and leader of the League party, said the plan was shameful.
“Unbelievable, instead of helping find young and unemployed Italians jobs, even today someone prefers immigrants, often irregular.
“League doesn’t change its mind: Italians first,” he wrote on Facebook.
Mr Salvini, who also served as deputy prime minster when the League was in coalition with the Five Star Movement, has argued for a billion-dollar rescue package for the agricultural sector.
“The priority now is to help Italians pay their mortgages, bills and rent and save businesses. Surely, it's not thinking about an amnesty for thousands of clandestine migrants," he wrote in a separate statement.
Pope Francis has appealed for the migrant workers to be given support.
“It is true that the current crisis affects everyone, but people’s dignity must always be respected. That is why I add my voice to the appeal of these workers and of all exploited workers," he said at his weekly audience. “May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the centre of our concern."