Scandal of the 'tomato slaves' harvesting crop exported to UK

tomato slaves
Southern Italy's tomato fields are blighted by exploitation and abuse of migrant workers. Photo: Beatrice Crippa Muti / Flai-Cgil
Across Italy an invisible army of migrant workers harvests tomatoes destined for our dinner plates. Paid poverty wages and living in squalor, medical charities have described conditions as 'hell'. Andrew Wasley reports from Basilicata, southern Italy

In the parched countryside outside the town of Venosa, in Basilicata, southern Italy, along a rough track fifteen minutes' drive from the nearest road, you come to a series of ruined farmhouses. Overgrown and run down, the brickwork crumbling, and surrounded by the detritus of poverty – rubbish, abandoned water butts, washing draped out of windows, dogs roaming – at first glance it's difficult to believe anyone lives here. 

The slums are in fact home to several hundred migrant workers about to harvest the region's abundant tomato crop. Every August, thousands of itinerants, mostly from Africa, some from Eastern Europe, descend on southern Italy to scratch a living picking tomatoes that will eventually be processed and exported across Europe – including to the UK – to be sold in tins, or as pastes, purees or passatas, or used as an ingredient in other food products.  

But an Ecologist investigation has revealed how the lucrative trade is blighted by exploitation and abuse: workers – some of them illegal immigrants – are forced to toil for up to 14 hours a day picking tomatoes in harsh conditions for meagre wages, frequently under the control of a network of gangmasters who make excessive deductions or charge inflated rates for transport, accommodation, food and other 'services'. Those complaining can face violence and intimidation.

Workers frequently live in appalling squalor: home is often a derelict building without power or any form of effective sanitation. As many as thirty people can be crammed into a single, filthy, one floor house. Healthcare is virtually non-existent and contact with the outside world minimal.    

So bad are the living and working conditions endured by the migrants that campaigners have dubbed them 'Europe's tomato slaves'.

Most seek out the precarious employment in order to send money to family back home, but find themselves caught up in a brutal spiral of poverty and exploitation. Unable to save sufficiently to transfer any money – or pay for a flight out of Europe – the workers become trapped and are forced to seek out similarly low paid and back-breaking work harvesting oranges, lemons, olives or strawberries in order to survive.

Human rights groups and unions say as many 50,000 migrant workers could be affected, toiling in the agricultural regions of Puglia, Basilicata and Campania, amongst others. The figure could be much higher as many migrants are thought to be in the country illegally.

Conditions are so poor that the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – more usually associated with providing medical aid in conflict zones – has in recent years sent mobile clinics to treat migrants in some areas, and issued a scathing report describing the workers' experiences as 'hell'.

Suffering and squalor

Those living in the first house the Ecologist visited didn't want to talk. There had been rumours of television cameras coming, and – in a clear sign many were in Italy without visas – fears that the 'authorities' could be conducting inspections. One man refuses to look up from gutting the carcass of an unknown animal that’s hanging from the shack's roof.

Further down the track there is another, almost identical, building. A dozen young African men are gathered around; some smoking, some lounging in the stifling Italian heat. These guys are happier to talk: this house is 'home' to fifteen migrants at present, mostly from West Africa –  countries such as Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

There's no running water or electricity. The men appear to sleep communally on mattresses spread out across the stone floor. The workers cook, wash and shit outdoors (there's no toilets here; as we left one worker was squatting just yards from the house). The tomato harvest begins in late  August in Basilicata; when it does, these men will be joined in the house by up to fifteen more workers. They say it will be so overcrowded that some will have to sleep outside.

The men tell us they are here for one thing: to work. Some had been in Italy for several months, some for several years. Most had no idea of when – or how – they'll return home. When not harvesting tomatoes they might be picking oranges or other fruit, or might go back to Naples, where much of Italy's itinerant workforce dwells when not actively harvesting. Some migrants beg on the city's streets.

Asked whether this what he expected to find when he set out for Italy, one worker, Joseph, from Ghana, tells us: 'It's not what we expected to find that matters, but what we found,' gesturing at the surroundings.

Another migrant, Armel, from Birkina Fasa, says 'It's not better here [than Africa], we're not used to this type of work.' He says it's not easy to send money home as prices [paid for work] are very low – and they have to buy food and other items for everyday living. 'Every harvest is the same, the orange harvest is even worse... there's too many people for the work [available]'.

Daniel, also from Birkina Fasa, tells us that once the harvest gets underway in the coming days, he expects to spend between ten and twelve hours a day in the exposed tomato fields, picking by hand; bending, plucking and carrying the filled crates. The work is arduous, repetitive and hot. The temperature can reach 40C degrees.

Contracts are non-existent for most tomato pickers. The migrants are paid on a piece-rate system based on the amount of tomatoes successfully harvested. Although it can vary from location to location, Daniel, Armel and Joseph can expect to earn between 20 -30 Euros (£17 - £26) per day – the current going 'rate' – depending on the number of crates picked. The crates are heavy, holding as many as 350 kg of tomatoes when full.

'But there's only enough work for three days [per week]', Daniel says. 'The other days are spent here.' This means, in practice, that some workers here could earn no more than 51 Euros (£45) per week. And that's before a gangmaster has taken his cut or workers have paid for essential items.

Strict hierarchy

In common with seasonal horticultural operations across Europe – and the US – gangmasters are central to Italy’s tomato harvest. They broker deals with farmers and producers, and supply the workforce, as well as providing transport, organising accommodation, food, water and other essentials for the workers.

The relationship between gangmasters and producers in Italy is complex with a strict hierarchy governing those involved in the supply of seasonal labour. In many cases an Italian gangmaster, known as a capo bianco (white chief), will approach a tomato farmer, or collection of farmers, to establish a business relationship. They will then agree the quantity of land to be harvested, and negotiate an overall price and the number of workers needed.

The capo bianco will then typically instruct one of a number of other gangmasters he manages – usually a foreign national from a country that is home to migrant workers; these are known as capo neros (black chiefs) – to physically recruit and manage the required workforce.

The capo nero usually lives alongside workers, but doesn't actively take part in the harvest, instead ensuring the correct number of migrants are delivered to the fields, providing their transport, accommodation, food and water, and paying the wages. 

Some deduct money from wages upfront for workers' food, accommodation and transport. Others charge for these essentials after they've been paid. Other 'services' and supplies must also be paid for – charging a mobile phone, organising clean drinking water, supplying a bike – with many enterprising gangmasters ensuring they take a cut on each sale. Often, a capo nero will take the first crate of tomatoes picked in a day as additional payment for his services. 

A capo nero is present when the Ecologist visits. He's unrecognisable apart from being marginally better dressed than his peers, and being one of few who say they've managed to return home – in his case Ivory Coast – since arriving in Italy. His presence means these workers are nervous about openly discussing financial details, although one young migrant complains that 'too much money' is sometimes charged for basic items.

Intimidation and violence

Relations between gangmasters and workers frequently break down as resentment over exploitative practices spills over; in recent years there have been regular reports of intimidation and violent attacks on workers who have spoken out, according to campaigners.

Union officials told the Ecologist they are currently concerned about the whereabouts of one African migrant who had been living in the Venosa area after it became known he had written a letter complaining about poor conditions. And in the Lecce region of Puglia (another hotspot for migrant labour) seasonal workers have recently complained about poor treatment by gangmasters and are currently 'striking' in protest.

In a groundbreaking investigation for 'L'espresso in 2006, Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti first revealed how African and Eastern European migrant workers harvesting tomatoes in Puglia were frequently threatened, beaten up and racially abused by gangmasters and farm owners.

In one disturbing incident, a Romanian worker was allegedly savagely beaten by a gangmaster before being left to die – he was later secretly fed by fellow workers and eventually taken to hospital where, after a major operation, he was handed over to police for deportation.

He was lucky to have received treatment at all.  MSF has reported that many immigrant workers employed in southern Italy's tomato and citrus fruit harvests have been turned away from hospitals whilst seeking treatment, and that others, without permission to be in Italy,  have been too afraid to access medical attention for fear of being reported.

The organisation, which has documented disturbing patterns of poor health amongst migrant workers, including skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, became so alarmed by conditions that it provided mobile health clinics and other humanitarian assistance to workers in several regions, including Basilicata.    

Although the situation in Basilicata is poor, campaigners says conditions are worse – and the scale of the problem even greater – in Puglia, in the Foggia and Lecce regions in particular. It’s estimated that there are as many as 15,000 migrant workers in Foggia, around 2,000 in Lecce. When the Ecologist visited Baslicata the figures were much lower, less than a 1,000, although that number is expected to swell as the harvest begins in earnest.  

Gervasio Ungolo, from the advocacy group Osservatorio Migranti, which works to improve conditions for migrant communities, says that although many of the tomato workers are in Italy legally – he estimates around 80 per cent, with the remainder in the country illegally – conditions are so poor and the future so bleak that many migrants simply despair. 'They reach the bottom of the scale, the bottom of the barrel,' he says 'they lose all self respect.'

Workers interviewed near Venosa concur: 'The situation in Africa is not so good, but the basis is still respect; not here... here there is no respect', says Armel.  Another migrant, Raul, tells us: 'We want to go back to Africa, we need people to help us go home. Life should be better... this is not life.'

As we leave, two of the younger migrants approach discreetly. Despite insisting that they are in Italy, and thus Europe, legally, they want to know whether it's possible to reach the UK and work unofficially: 'how do you get there? do you need paperwork? is it possible to work without a passport? is the work better than here?'        

Keeping costs down

Few Italian tomato farmers will freely admit to employing migrant workers despite it being an 'open secret' within the industry. One grower interviewed by the Ecologist acknowledged however that the practice was common, particularly when weather conditions are poor and machines (increasingly being used by larger farms to mechanically harvest) cannot operate.  

The farmer, Giovanni Lagana, based near the Basilicatan town of Lavello – a major hub for tomato growing – says that foreign workers have been employed during the Basilicata tomato harvest for years. 'Twenty years ago, in the beginning, they were from North Africa, now it's Central or Western Africa,' he says. 'Tunisian students came to train and learn the harvest.'

He says the migrant workers he uses are 80 per cent African, 20 per cent Eastern European – Italians apparently don't want to do the work – and that all are supplied by a gangmaster. 'It's necessary [to use gangmasters] so I don't have to talk to forty people, just one, to arrange the work. They say “how many workers do you need?”, we negotiate the price for a box, it's a guarantee for the workers and farmers – they take care of everything.'

Lagana, who cultivates up to 900 tonnes of tomatoes each season, some of which are supplied to major processing companies for export and sale as tinned tomatoes overseas, says there is an economic imperative to keep costs, including labour costs, down: 'The price we have now in 2011 [for tomatoes] is the same as 30 years ago, but the [production] costs have risen.'

The farmer says tomato growers are under acute pressure as plants, irrigation systems, fertilisers, pesticides, and the harvest, all have to be paid upfront, and that the prices paid by the food industry are too low. Each year, the price for a tonne of tomatoes is fixed by Italian food industry representatives and local producers organisations, he says. These regional organisations, or co-operatives, of which most growers are members, then meet with processing companies to set up a deal and agree prices for the season.

'It's a bad life, tomato production with this system is destined to disappear. Prices are too low; maybe they are going to lower them more and more because of Chinese production,' says Lagana. Although still one of the world's leading suppliers of tomatoes – and tomato products – Italy is facing stiff competition from other growing nations, including China, to keep prices competitive and this pressure trickles down to individual farmers.     

A representative from one regional producers’ organisation told the Ecologist that the 'wider market' is to blame, and that if a major retailer says it is going to pay a certain amount per tin, 'the industry has to follow this price'. He made no correlation between the need to keep costs low and the apparently widespread use of migrant workers however; in fact, he denied that foreign workers were used in Basilicata to harvest tomatoes at all.

Culture of impunity

Although acknowledging that tomato farmers face increasing pressures, human rights groups and unions argue that many growers simply turn a blind eye to exploitation: 'Farmers?  They don't care, they know about the inhumane conditions,'  Vincenzo Esposito, from the Flai-Cgil union, says. The union is behind a major campaign Oro Rosso – Red Gold – to raise awareness of the problem in Basilicata, Puglia and elsewhere. 

Esposito says there are two principal problems – the number of workers, and the payment system: 'There's too many workers, too many people, immigrants from elsewhere coming here, yet they cannot always get work here,' he says. 'Every year the Basilicata region deals with an emergency situation with the arrival of hundreds of workers. The situation in Puglia is worse, and the gangmasters are more aggressive.'

Flai-Cgil is calling for an industry wide protocol, akin to a certification scheme, to be adopted by national tomato producers, in order to agree minimum standards and an ethical code. On September 28th they are planning a national day of action to promote the scheme.

Gervasio Ungolo, from Osservatorio Migranti, says there's a culture of inpunity around the issue: 'It's like in World War Two, when you had the trains [carrying Jews to the death camps]; everyone knew but didn't act because of fear, it's exactly the same with the tomato slaves.'

Ungolo used to cultivate tomatoes but left the sector after witnessing abuses: ' I used to see workers in the fields, slavery among workers, and bags of money [changing hands] – and decided to get out of this game,' he says.

Mechanical harvest

Tomatoes – and processed tomatoes in particular – are big business in Italy: the country produces up to 4 million tonnes each year with as many as 90 per cent destined for processing. Italian tinned tomato exports were estimated to be worth more than $900 million in 2008. The country is responsible for around 75 per cent of the world's canned tomato exports. Britain is the largest importer of tinned tomatoes in the world – with more than 80 per cent of its processed tomato products coming from Italy.

The trade is dominated by a handful of large companies. Leading suppliers deny any involvement in the migrant workers scandal.

Conserve Italia, manufacturer of the popular Cirio brand, processes approximately 300,000 tonnes of tomatoes annually, including some cultivated in Puglia and Basilicata. The company sells to Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Morrison’s, as well as supplying cash and carry outlets and specialist Italian delicatessens.

Conserve Italia admitted that some of its tomato suppliers use migrant labour but said they are employed by farmers and not directly associated with the company. The company also stated that a strict code conduct prevents abuses in their supply chain.

'Conserve Italia has an associated cooperative in Apulia [Puglia] that provides 50 per cent of the total amount of fresh tomato processed in our factory in Apulia. This cooperative associated to Conserve Italia guarantees that all the production is made in compliance with our code of ethics, which prescribes to the associated farmers to produce and harvest the tomato without exploitation of illegal labour,’ a statement said.

'Moreover of the total quality processed in Mesagne [in Puglia] factory, 80 per cent is harvested by machines and only 20 per cent is harvested by hand, with workers that are legally employed by the farmers not associated to Conserve Italia. The suppliers subscribe a commitment with Conserve Italia that engages them to respect all regulations in terms of use of labour. Most of the workers employed by our suppliers are Romanians and Bulgarians,' the statement continued 

La Doria, which through its subsidiary LDH Ltd, supplies many of the large UK supermarkets – including Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose – with tinned tomatoes and other tomato products for 'own brand' items, has a major processing plant situated in Lavello, Basilicata, but denied using any migrant labour for its harvest.  

The company said: ‘100 per cent of the tomatoes processed by La Doria are mechanically harvested where prices and contracts have been agreed, with approved growers in March this year prior to the planting of the crop. In the La Doria factories 100 per cent of seasonal workers are Italian and contracted to La Doria. La Doria have an ethical code which is not only followed throughout the group but also given to the contracted growers for them to respect. In addition a team of La Doria agronomists work closely with the growers to monitor closely all aspects of the cultivation and harvesting of the crop.’

A spokeswoman for Waitrose told the Ecologist: 'We take very seriously the welfare of all workers in our supply chain. Our expectations on labour standards and working conditions are outlined in our Responsible Sourcing Code of Practice, which all suppliers are expected to comply with – this includes branded suppliers such as Cirio.

'La Doria supplies us with canned tomatoes, and as a Waitrose supplier is engaged in our ethical compliance programme and expected to comply with our Responsible Sourcing Code... in addition, the tomatoes grown for Waitrose are mechanically harvested, which is much less labour intensive than manual harvesting, therefore bypassing the need for a large workforce.

'We build our supplier relationships on honesty, fairness and mutual respect and expect all our suppliers to respect the rights and well-being of their employees. As such we have immediately begun a thorough investigation to make sure our code of practice is being adhered to.'

Sainsburys said: 'Sainsbury’s was a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and expects all suppliers to follow our Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade, which incorporates the ETI Base Code... Sainsbury's has a clear approach to corporate responsibility to ensure that we do business in an ethical and sustainable way.'

A spokesperson for Tesco said: ‘We work in partnership with our suppliers to ensure our products are sourced responsibly and will work to resolve any problems we find without delay. We have investigated these reports and do not believe our supplier is affected.’

Back in Basilicata, driving past the arid tomato fields around Venosa, Vincenzo Esposito is hoping their efforts to establish some sort of certification scheme will prove successful – soon: ‘We’ve got immigrants living without water, without electricity… they are treated like animals.’

In the main square at the centre of Venosa, we take a break, waiting for contacts to come back to us with news. We order a coffee and a cheese and salad sandwich from one of few cafes open at this – scorching – time of day. The owner's very sorry, our translator says, however, 'he’s run out of tomatoes.' 

Additional reporting and translation: Gianluca Martelliano

Video and photographs: A migrants' journey by Michele Palazzi & Alessandro Penso

*The names of all workers and farmers have been changed to protect their identity

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