Abdou, a migrant worker, picks Italian tomatoes but barely earns a living

Migrant tomato worker, Italy

Today is International Migrants Day. So we’re taking the opportunity to tell you Abdou’s story and why it has implications for those UK retailers and food manufacturers that want to ensure their supply chains are clean. Abdou is one of many thousands of migrant workers picking and packing Italian tomatoes.

“It is impossible to have direct contact with employers. It is always the Caporali,” said Abdou, 26, from Senegal. After travelling thousands of miles from Africa he is working in the tomato fields of Puglia in Italy.

Abdou is just one of tens of thousands of migrant workers who pick and pack Italian tomatoes used in canned and processed tomato products on UK and mainland Europe's supermarket shelves.

He told his story to researchers from Norway's Ethical Trading Initiative who are tracking the exploitation of migrants in Italy’s tomato fields.

Caporali – illegal gangmasters who control crews of migrant workers – keep half his pay and oversee all parts of his life. He cannot get a job without them, as farmers’ contacts are all with the Caporali.

Tomatoes are the crown jewels of Italian agriculture

Tomatoes are the crown jewels of Italian agriculture. They are Italy’s main agricultural export. 

Italy is the world's third largest producer of processed tomatoes. And the UK, alongside Germany, is Italy’s major trading partner. 

Over 60 per cent of the UK’s processed tomatoes are imported from Italy and this accounts for nearly 16 per cent of Italy’s tomato exports.

But those exports are built on the back of a growing migrant workforce.

Foreign labour is regarded as crucial to enable Italian agriculture to compete on global markets.

Yet though Italy banned the Caporalato system in 2011 following revelations of abuse, exploitation and links organised crime, its employment laws are routinely ignored.

Implications for UK retailers and food manufacturers that want to ensure their supply chains are abuse free

Reliance on a growing migrant workforce and the employment illegalities inherent with the tomato sector has massive implications for UK retailers and food manufacturers that want to ensure their supply chains are abuse free.

Officially the number of foreign agricultural workers in Italy is estimated to be 116,000.

But the respected Italian Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) suggests the figure is 500,000 including regular and irregular migrants.  

Additionally, research institute Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto estimates that 400,000 agricultural workers, of whom 80 per cent are migrants, are probably being exploited by Caporali. They also say that in excess of 100,000 illegally employed non-EU migrant workers experience severe exploitation.

Where responsibility lies

UK retailers typically enter the Italian supply chain at processer level and exploitation happens two tiers below that at the farm gate. It is also hidden because of the illegal nature of Caporali dealings.

Retailers cannot therefore be expected to take lone responsibility for working to change a pervasive system.

Importantly, Italian tomato processors are significant companies in their own right. They must accept accountability for due diligence reporting within their supply chains.

The Italian government too must plug gaps in legislation, legally pursue the Caporali, increase labour inspections and require strict compliance with collective bargaining agreements.

Despite this, UK retailers have power and influence, and can and should act.

The ETI is advising retailers to map their supply chains, prioritising those areas most at risk of exploiting migrant workers and to include assessment of wages paid and hours worked using responsible local organisations and trade unions.

And even though exploitation occurs on farms, retailers still need to work at all levels to ensure improved conditions for workers in the fields.

The ETI also advises that brands will want to assess how their purchasing terms affect the situation and whether this is a driver of low standards.

Abdou’s future beyond Puglia’s tomato fields

What about Abdou’s future beyond Puglia’s tomato fields? When paying his wages, the Caporali will take deductions for finding him work, transportation, food, phone top ups, money transfers and for supplying housing in what will inevitably be appalling and insanitary conditions.

Working for 12 hours at time with no rest days, Abdou will regularly earn less than €30 a day, even though the legal minimum wage for temporary contract workers is €6.50 an hour and the maximum working day is 9.5 hours with one rest day a week.

In order to avoid legal penalties, the Caporali may even make him declare receipt of a full paycheck that he must then partially reimburse.

And when the tomato harvest finishes, Abdou will probably move on to harvesting olives and then greenhouse work or picking citrus.

He will be trapped in a seasonal circuit of employment – a vicious cycle of illegal work in which many irregular migrants are trapped for years.

Without change, his future is bleak.

Find out more on how UK retailers can meet the challenge of securing decent working conditions in their Italian supply chains

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ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.