Italian tomatoes: no more excuses over labour exploitation

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Italy’s tomato industry has become a byword for the exploitation of migrant workers. Yet standards could significantly improve within a year if steps being discussed at industry level take place, writes Alessa Rigal.

For the last two years, the Joint ETI’s of Denmark, Norway and the UK have been working behind the scenes to help Italy’s agricultural sector address worker exploitation.

Particularly of migrant workers from Africa and the Middle East.

That’s important because Italy supplies 60% of the European Union’s tomato products.

Like many other European countries, Italy is heavily dependent on migrant labour to harvest its produce. And not just tomatoes but grapes and citrus too. Yet in Italy, migrant workers are not only trapped in irregular work, they are openly exploited. And with impunity.

Since 2015 we’ve been helping our retail members find the best way to clean up their Italian supply chains.

We’ve also been making links with local players as well as key government ministries.

But before I expand on what’s happening, it’s worth repeating what we wrote in 2015:

  • Retailers cannot be expected to take lone responsibility for working to change a pervasive system. However, they should be leveraging their purchasing power and influence.
  • Italian tomato processors are significant companies in their own right. They must accept accountability for due diligence reporting (risk management) within their supply chains.
  • The Italian government must plug gaping holes in its legislation, pursue Caporali (illegal gangmasters), increase labour inspections and require strict compliance with collective bargaining agreements.

The situation now

We know that our members are mapping their supply chains and prioritising those areas most at risk of exploiting migrant workers, including making assessments of wages paid and hours worked.

They’ve also strengthened their links with responsible local companies, civil society organisations and trade unions.

Local organisations have started to collate examples of good practice. Essential relationships are being built with relevant Italian trade unions, UILA and CGIL, as well as local civil society organisations.

Importantly, the Milan Centre for Food Law and Policy through their initiative ‘Be Aware’ is defining what exploitation looks like in the local agricultural sector.

Their aim. To promote a European legislative framework in favour of good practices. ETI will be working closely with the Centre in 2018.

At the national level, Italy’s government has improved its gangmasters legislation and at long last has banned so called “double down auctions”.[1]

Most of the pieces needed to improve the situation are therefore in place. But energy now needs to be focussed on bringing those pieces together.

If that happens, ETI believes that we could see vastly improved labour standards within a year.

Collaboration, sharing and enforcement

Collaboration needs to continue, as we presented at a recent meeting in Rome. Case studies must be widely shared. And local initiatives need to be supporting one another.

But what does collaboration, sharing and enforcement look like? 

Collaboration must be pan-European in approach, and include others such as the big German players Aldi and Lidl.

That's because alongside the UK, Germany is the largest importer of Italian tomato products. It’s therefore no good just UK and Scandinavian supermarkets stepping up to the plate. We need to see German buyers actively engaging too.

Collaboration also means joined-up thinking - sharing information.

At the moment a lot of different initiatives from field to government level are taking place. To ensure nothing is lost, collaborative space must be found for assessment and to effect greater impact.

That space should sit within a specialist unit of a government ministry.

That’s also why action on enforcement is crucial.

But Italy’s record remains fragile, as the continued existence of Caporali shows.

Caporali may have been banned, but even though the country’s latest gangmasters law (law 199 enacted in 2016) has strengthening existing legislation, they are still prevalent.

We would be encouraged if the Italian government could learn from the UK’s GLAA, particularly around registration of recruitment agencies.

The registration of recruitment agencies must be made compulsory. So far there’s only provision for a voluntary network of registered recruitment agents.

Even more problematically, the network is run by the social security agency rather than directly by government. It should sit under either the Ministry of Labour or the Ministry of Agriculture. 

However, international buyers should still lend support to the network as it currently exists, and encourage suppliers to engage with and only use registered agents.

The bigger picture

There’s a lot of goodwill out there, not least from ETI member retailers. But consolidated campaigning is necessary to keep the pressure for change high. That’s the job of NGOs and trade unions.

Advocacy by business is also key, from persuading buyers to support local NGO-run projects with workers, up to and including lobbying efforts with government.

Companies should also be coming together to map their supply chains and share their findings in support of local initiatives, and to undertake greater human rights due diligence.

As such, ETI’s Italian tomatoes working group is shortly to formalise action plans around various initiatives and will look to engage with local stakeholders to join the dots.

It is important to re-emphasise that we believe meaningful outcomes are possible within a year if momentum is maintained.

It might also just be possible for Italy to become a beacon for migrant working.  

After all, the problems in Italy’s tomato sector sit within a wider European framework.

The issues Italy faces are recognisable to some extent in every European country - and vulnerable agricultural workers need as much support as they can get.

If companies want to find out more about joining ETI's Italy Working Group, contact Alessa Rigal


[1] In a double down auction, the buyer (normally the retailer) will name the maximum price they are prepared to pay (which can often be below the cost of production). Suppliers are invited to submit their bid, with the lowest bid winning the contract. In this situation the only possible variable is the wage paid to workers – almost inevitably downwards.


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