Most emigrants were farm workers and, if forced to do so, could fall back on such work as clearing woodland or virgin territory, as well as unskilled labour in railway building or on large construction sites. They also found work in mines. In the words of historian Rudolph Vecoli, they ended up “a pala e a piccone ”.(1)
Around half the emigrants came back to settle in Italy. In the United States, for instance, the “emigration campaign” of fifty percent of the men who left on their own lasted only a few years.
Often, their experience followed the same pattern: lack of interest in finding out more about the country in which they had arrived, meaning failure to integrate and learn the local language; saving as much money as possible, and in the shortest time possible, so as to accelerate their return; accepting, as a result, not only excessive work, but also a standard of living which it would be euphemistic to define as ‘Spartan’. Of course, many men repeated these trips several times, encouraged by improved travelling conditions and the reduction of travel time.
The area of origin in Italy was associated with certain kinds of work. In the case of mass migration to Australia, emigrants from mountain areas worked as woodsmen or sugar cane cutters in Western Australia; those coming from plain areas became farmers or started working in the service sector.
A precise “vocation” in terms of destination can also be seen. In Europe, the direction of the migratory flow was west or east according to the emigrant’s region of origin: people emigrated from Piedmont to France, and from Veneto to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.