Migrant work and ‘agricultural slavery’ in Italy

04 July 2022 /

5 min

Each summer, millions of tons of tomatoes are produced in the south of Italy. This makes Italy the third-largest producer in the world, with a turnover of several billion euros per year. To reduce costs, inexpensive labour is hired, which leads to hundreds of thousands of migrants falling into what can be described as modern slavery. They are underpaid for their hard work, forced to settle in ghettos under the tutelage of the caporali, Italian-speaking migrants recruited by local farmers. But how does such a tragedy occur in a European country like Italy, with a supposedly strong respect for human rights?

Italy overtaken by the high number of migrants

A migrant can be defined as any person who has resided in a foreign country for more than one year, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, and whatever the means – regular or irregular – used to migrate. Italy is one of the first destinations of African migrants due to its proximity to the north of the continent. As for asylum seekers, every asylum seeker arriving in the European Union is under the Dublin regulation, which establishes that migrants who aim to live in Europe have to ask for refugee status in the first European country they reach. The refugee status is granted to persons who meet the criteria of the Geneva Convention, i.e. who fear persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a certain social group or political opinions.

To ensure that this regulation is respected, migrants who arrive in a European country are obliged to provide their footprints. This prevents them from obtaining refugee status anywhere else in Europe. The main problem with this procedure is that most migrants come by boat from Libya, so the majority of them arrive in Italy or Greece. This policy generates inequalities between the European member states, because southern and Mediterranean countries have to welcome more asylum seekers than the rest, even if they have less resources and suffered the most from the economic crisis. Thus, Italy does not have the infrastructure to welcome all these migrants in optimal conditions, which hardens their living conditions and causes a high unemployment rate; in this context, agricultural work is often seen by migrants as the only way to earn money fast.

The problems of this type of work

According to the Italian trade union confederation FLAI-CGIL, around 420,000 people are illegally employed and exploited in intensive agriculture all over the country. For workers, this exploitation means, at the economic level, to be paid less than the minimum mandatory wage, with a pay of €3.50 per box of 300kg of tomatoes. But also, a part of their pay is retained due to what employers call “additional fees”, which consist of driving workers to the farmland or providing them food during working hours. Regarding the poor working conditions, most of these workers suffer from ill-treatment by their employers: physical or psychological violence, inhuman living conditions, no respect of their fundamental rights, etc.

At the social level, no infrastructures for migrants are subsidized or provided by the state to improve their situation. The state does not legally recognize these workers’ jobs either. Consequently, they depend on their employer in all aspects of their life, always under the supervision of the caporali, intermediaries between the workers and the farm owners. The employed migrants have often done the same job before. They have been in Italy for seven or eight years, speak the language well and own at least one van. The caporali can be seen as a ‘mafia’ that, through an illegal network, exploits migrants – especially the undocumented ones – by making them work in inhuman conditions.

If a migrant person wants to earn money in Italy, most of the jobs are located in agricultural fields. To find work in this area, migrants have to contact the caporali, who send them to the fields and supervise them during the work, but also have control over them. The caporali exploit migrants through fake contracts and very low wages for their hard work. These conditions make migrants live in inhuman conditions, mostly in ghettos. The dwellings of these ghettos are often made with recycled materials or located in abandoned houses. These facilities are totally unsanitary and host up to 3,000 people in summer. This exploitation makes it very hard for the migrants to integrate into the host country and its society.

The impact of capitalism

Ghettos have existed for many years and even made the headlines in 2011, when some migrant workers went on strike to protest for their living and working conditions. These demonstrations led to the creation of associations committed to the fight against all forms of racism and exploitation, such as Diritti a Sud or No Cap, which allow their workers to harvest tomatoes with dignity. Unfortunately, these associations are few in number and often have small infrastructures, which does not allow them to employ many workers. In 2016, protests by migrant workers also led to the adoption of legislative measures allowing the criminal prosecution of illegal labour providers, but also of farmers who used their services. If they were found to be employing illegal labour, they could face a sentence of up to six years of prison.

Unfortunately, these initiatives have not solved the problem. Indeed, to achieve real change, the large-scale distribution chains must be modified. Imposing derisory purchase prices of agricultural products forces landowners to pay indecently low wages to collectors, which generates injustice, especially towards migrant workers. For example, the brands Cirio and Mutti, giants of the sector, were cited in the investigation of the death of a migrant worker: Abdullah Mohammed, a 47-year-old Sudanese, died of a heart attack in July 2015 while harvesting tomatoes.

The role of the European Union

Despite the implementation of new legislation and the initiatives of some associations to stop this ‘modern slavery’, the exploitation of migrants by the caporali and the land owners is still going on today. This generates deplorable living conditions with ridiculously low wages, physical and mental violence and victims’ dependence on their executioners. Unfortunately, until changes to retailing are made, farmers will be unable to pay their workers decent wages and will continue to abuse migrants for profit. Europe must be strong and prioritize people over economic benefit. It is time to act in a strong and firm way to stop this ruthless practice and return to the fundamental principles of the European Union: respect for human dignity, freedom, pluralist democracy, tolerance, equality and non-discrimination, justice and the rule of law as well as the preservation of human rights.

[This article was first published in the issue 36 of the magazine]

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