Gross exploitation of migrant workers still found in Italian tomato sector despite clean-up efforts

  • 9 December 2015
Migrant tomato workers, Italy

Italian tomatoes account for 60 per cent of processed tomatoes sold in the UK. Now, a new Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) report, Counteracting exploitation of migrant workers in Italian tomato production reveals massive exploitation of a growing migrant work force in Italy’s agricultural sector and in tomato production in particular.

Nick Kightley, ETI’s food and farming adviser said exploitation is inextricably linked to so called Caporali. These are the illegal gangmasters who hire migrant workers who pick and pack Italy’s tomatoes – even though Italy banned the Caporalato system in 2011 following revelations of appalling working conditions and links to organised crime.

“Foreign labour is regarded as crucial to enable Italian agriculture to compete on global markets. Yet in a race to make the biggest possible profit, employment laws are being routinely ignored,” said Nick Kightley.

“Reliance on migrant workers, and the employment illegalities inherent within the tomato sector, has massive knock-on implications for those UK retailers that want to ensure their supply chains are abuse free.”

While illegality affects EU and non-EU workers alike, non-EU workers are particularly vulnerable and disproportionately affected because of their migration status, typically working very long hours with wages 40 per cent lower than legal minimum thresholds. And numbers are rising although estimates of those at risk vary:

  • Officially, the number of foreign agricultural workers in Italy is estimated to be 116,000.
  • In contrast the respected Italian Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) suggests the figure is 500,000, including regular and irregular migrants.
  • In 2014, research institute Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto estimated that 400,000 agricultural workers, of whom 80 per cent were migrants, were at risk of exploitation by Caporali and that in excess of 100,000 illegally employed non-EU migrant workers experienced severe exploitation including appalling living conditions.

Nick Kightley said: “Tomatoes are the crown jewels of Italian agriculture. They are Italy’s major agricultural export and Italy is the world’s third largest producer of processed tomatoes.

“UK retailers typically enter the Italian supply chain at processer level and exploitation normally happens two tiers below that at the farm gate. It is also a hidden problem because of the illegalities surrounding Caporali and the employment of migrant workers. Despite this, UK companies have power and influence, and can and should act.”

Specifically, the ETI is advising retailers to urgently map their supply chains, prioritising those areas most at risk of exploiting migrant workers and to include assessment of wages paid and hours worked. ETI says that even though exploitation starts at the farm gate, retailers will need to work at all levels to ensure improved conditions for workers in the fields. ETI advises that brands will also want to assess how their purchasing terms affect the situation and whether this is a driver of low standards.

The report recognises that international retailers cannot be expected to take lone responsibility for changing a pervasive system. Italian tomato processors are significant companies in their own right and must also accept accountability for due diligence and reporting within their supply chains, as must organisations of agricultural producers including cooperatives.

There is also a role for government to tighten legal protection for all workers, to impose any necessary sanctions as recommended by the EU, increase labour inspections and require strict compliance with collective bargaining agreements.

For further information, contact: Jane Moyo | Ethical Trading Initiative, Acting Communications Manager | 0207 841 4358 or 07944 270833

Notes for Editors

Download a copy of the report here: Counteracting exploitation of migrant workers in Italian tomato production

The tomato supply chain

International retailers purchase processed tomatoes from processing companies which in turn source fresh tomatoes from 300 producer organisations operating at a regional level. Local supply is centralised through the producers which market, sell and bill on behalf of individual (large) farms and farmers’ cooperatives.

Italy’s 5,000 cooperatives – groups of medium and small-sized farms – account for 99% of national production of agricultural produce. The majority of farms producing tomatoes are small and it is mainly on farms with smaller fields predominantly in the south of Italy where workers suffer from exploitation by Caporali as tomatoes must be harvested manually rather than by harvesting machines.

Caporali negotiate with farmers and supply and pay the migrant workers under their control, bussing them onto the farms as farmers find it easier to negotiate with one gang master than with several individual workers. They oversee all parts of a migrant worker’s life from getting a residency permit at €5,000 to €7,000 to gaining work, for which they charge a fee.

Even with wages well below legal minimum thresholds – on average their wages are 40 per cent lower than local workers on the legal minimum wage – Caporali are often a worker’s only means of finding a job. Charging fees for transportation, food, phone top-ups, accommodation, money transfers and numbers of crates filled they reportedly pocket up to half of a worker’s daily pay. In a recent development, to avoid legal oversight and to keep their jobs, workers declare receipt of full pay checks which they must then partially reimburse to the Caporali.

Migrant tomato pickers normally work a 12-hour day. Typically, they earn €3 per crate of tomatoes picked under a piecework system, paid according to amounts produced. Workers advised researchers that their daily salary often does not reach €30. But in Italy, the minimum wage is €850 a month (approx. €5 per hour) plus an additional 30 per cent for temporary contract workers (approx. €1.50 per hour). Legally, working hours are 6.5 hours a day (39 hours a week) with maximum overtime set at 3 hours a day (18 hours a week) and at least one rest day a week.  

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