The Italian food industry is exploiting migrant workers: labour abuse in southern Italian fields
Illustration by Gosia Kepka

Not far from the Gargano peninsula’s breathtaking views and the golden beach on the Adriatic seacoast. Far enough from the inflow of tourists choosing the southern Italian region of Apulia for their vacation, about 12,000 migrants live in ghettos under conditions of absolute exploitation.

Without running water, electricity, waste disposal, and for a few euros per hour of work, mainly citizens of sub-Saharan Africa, Romanians, and Bulgarians are recruited illegally from gangmasters. They are locally known as Caporali. This term comes from the military word ‘corporal’. It is a word mentioned explicitly in the law, for the hand-harvest of local tomatoes.

Northern Apulia is the hearth of the Italian agricultural sector. It ranks alongside China as the world’s second-largest producer of tomatoes for processing -after the United States- and the producer of 14% of the world supply of tomatoes and 49% of the European market.

According to an estimate from the Placido Rizzotto Observatory in 2015, around 430,000 workers were somehow irregularly employed in agriculture in Italy. Of these, 80% were foreign workers, and about 100,000 were identified as being at high risk. Women farmworkers comprised 42% of irregular farm workers (only in Apulia about 40,000 Italian and 18,000 migrant women experienced some form of exploitation in this economic sector); evidence suggests that women are usually overrepresented in unpaid and seasonal work, and they are often paid less than men.

The ‘Caporalato’ System and Human Rights Violations

The eight Apulian settlements distributed on a geographic area of 60 kilometres. In places such as Borgo Mezzanone, Gran Ghetto, Borgo Tre Titoli, Fabbrica ex Daunialat, Palmori, Poggio Imperiale, Borgo Cicerone, Contrada San Matteo. In places that include different social groups and often populate the world of the tomato harvest. First, of course, are the landowning Italian farmers.

These figures supply the capital inputs for the production of millions of tonnes of tomatoes across tens of thousands of hectares, which they sell to Italian agro-industrial firms for transformation. Though farmers have a relationship of interdependence with the industry, they are inevitably separated by the transporters’ pivotal aspect.

It is commonly accepted that these transporters are controlled by gangmasters. Like their workers, they are mainly from the eastern edge of Europe or various African countries. The Caporale as an intermediary is crucial because of his responsibility in scheduling work with the farmer, sourcing the necessary workers, transporting them to and from the field, and ensuring that they complete the harvest.

The harvest in Foggia is conducted predominantly by hand. They are therefore necessary in large numbers for the intense harvest period that lasts from July through September. West-African people are divided into those who have papers, such as long-term residents, those awaiting asylum decisions and those who do not have either and have arrived in Italy illegally or have overstayed. EU citizens are in Italy legally, even though their work is often informal.

Regarding the way of payment, usually, agricultural workers are paid with a regular contract by the day or for just a few of the days worked, then paid under the table at a piece rate for the remaining days.

The work itself is physically strenuous. It involves a work-day of 12 hours, from 5.30 am until sundown, under the burning Apulian sun. For a day of work with a regular contract, the typical rate is about 45 euros. It is possible to earn up to 80 euros at the piece rate, collecting 20 caissons for, on average, 3.50 euros each. As can be assumed, in practice, the lack of documentation, the payment per day, and not least the involvement of a Caporale opens the door to abusive situations and exploitation.

The Caporale earns a small sum for each filled caisson. A maximum of 14% of workers’ daily wage covers the costs of transport to and from the fields. The payment is delayed until the industry receives its goods from everyone. This chain of payment (the industry pays the farmer, who pays the Caporale, who pays the workers) offers opportunities for exploitation.

Opposing Exploitative Labour Practice: Associations and Activists

In the last ten years, enforcement actions for rural workers have arisen. Since 2011, the Sindacato di Strada association is committed in the affirmation of the rights of thousands of farmworkers. In 2012 the Camper dei diritti (Campervan for rights) was promoted by FLAI-CGIL ( the Agricultural Workers’ Federation of The Italian General Confederation of Labour ) and operated a widespread campaign against illegal work and caporalato in the more exposed areas.

On the 17th November 2016, the Chamber of Deputies was presented with the third report #FilieraSporca produced by Terra! Onlus. This report results from five-month research conducted in Puglia, Campania, Emilia, and China. It traces back the production system, processing, and marketing of tomatoes.

Other projects worth noting are Funky Tomato who has produced a legal and transparent supply chain in South Italy and the SfruttaZero. It runs two associations that produce tomato sauce and distributes it throughout Italy, ensuring a fair salary for workers.

More recently, the matter has returned to the fore thanks to Aboubakar Soumahoro, an activist and trade unionist of agricultural workers. On the 21st of May, he launched a strike to make the voices of ‘invisible workers’ heard. Moreover, the activist Diletta Bellotti, drew attention to the reality of the lives of Farmworkers through her campaigning in Plebiscito square in Naples and in Piazza di Spagna in Rome, and through her posts on Instagram.

According to Oxfam, governments should re-establish and enforce vital protections for small-scale farmers and workers. As a means of reining in the abuse of power by supermarkets and food suppliers. Thus, supermarkets and their suppliers will have to change their core business models.

In Italy, there has been an outcry for the government to introduce and implement binding legislation to ban unfair trading practices that penalize small-scale farmers and exploit agricultural workers. Oxfam welcomes the recent agreement between the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and some large-scale Italian distributors to stop double auctions.

To date, there is talk of a decree to protect farm workers as well as give them a potential bonus of 600 euros. If they had worked, in 2019, at least 50 actual days of agricultural work. This decree would still exclude pensioners or some of Italy’s most vulnerable workers.