Coca Cola challenged over orange harvest linked to 'exploitation and squalor'

oranges migrant workers coca cola
Oranges harvested in the Rosarno area of Calabria are mainly used for juice or soft drinks

Oranges harvested in the Rosarno area of Calabria are mainly used for juice or concentrates

The manufacturer of Fanta is being urged to help address the poor conditions and low wages endured by some African migrant workers harvesting oranges in southern Italy. Andrew Wasley reports from Rosarno

It is perhaps the worst address in Western Europe. A ramshackle slum with a noisy road on one side, a railway on another, and a stagnant-looking river flowing close-by. The camp itself consists of little more than a collection of shoddily-erected canvas tents and some abandoned buildings and sheds.

Behind the wire fence, fires burn amid piles of rubbish – discarded wholesale-sized tins of olive oil, plastic bottles, newspapers, food scraps and other unidentifiable filth. Woodsmoke stings your eyes. As the winter sun falls, the scene is almost apocalyptic; dozens of migrants swarm around us – cooking, chopping firewood, calling out, trying to keep warm – their figures silhouetted against the flames.

They are from Africa – Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast – and this squalid camp, where doctors say conditions are as bad, or worse, than in refugee camps in war zones, is currently home to at least two hundred itinerants.

The migrants are here in Rosarno, in Calabria, southern Italy, to harvest the region's extensive orange crop. Each winter, as many as 2000 migrants travel to this small agricultural town to scratch a living picking oranges that will end up on sale in markets and supermarkets, or as juices or concentrates used in the manufacture of soft drinks.

But these fruit products could be linked to a life of squalor and exploitation for some of those working at the bottom of the supply chain, an investigation by The Ecologist has revealed.

Campaigners are now calling on multinational food and drink firms purchasing orange ingredients from the region to help address the problem. Italy's largest farmers association says it has written to several companies – including Coca Cola, manufacturer of the Fanta orange drink – complaining that prices paid for orange concentrates are unfair, and fostering unpleasant conditions.

Coca Cola denies any wrongdoing and says its direct Calabrian supplier was given a clean bill of health by an independent auditor as recently as last May, but admits the nature of the supply chain means it is unable to audit every farm or consortium whose juice may be bought by its supplier.

Many of the African migrants are in Italy illegally, having crossed the Mediterranean in often treacherous conditions in order to seek out a better life, or secure employment to send money back to their families.

Most move between the major agricultural regions – Puglia, Campania, Sicily, Calabria and Basilicata – seeking piece work during the seasonal harvests of oranges, lemons, kiwis, olives, tomatoes and melons. There's thought to be around 50,000 migrants, mainly Africans, a few Eastern Europeans, currently existing like this across Italy.

Squalor and slums

They typically earn 25 Euros (£21) for a day’s work in the Calabrian orange groves. They are often recruited by gangmasters acting on behalf of farm owners cashing in on the ready supply of cheap labour. The gangmasters, both Africans and Italians, can charge workers for transport to and from the orange farms – typically between 2.5 to 5 Euros – and sometimes make other deductions from wages paid by farmers.

Many of the migrants in Rosarno and the surrounding countryside live in appalling conditions, in run down buildings or in makeshift slums on the edge of town. There's no electricity or running water. In many cases there's no functioning roof.

In the town's largest slum some workers 'are forced to sleep outside, even in winter', according to Solomon, a migrant from Ghana who has been here for two months.

'Conditions are not good, as you can see,' he tells The Ecologist, gesturing to the chaotic camp around us when we visit at night. Solomon says has been in Italy itself for three years, in Naples before Rosarno, and came 'for economic, for financial reasons.'

Another migrant, who doesn't give his name, says he came from Ghana because there was work here, and money to be earned. He had 'no idea' this would be where he would live.

Food parcels from local activists arrive whilst we are there - hot pasta from a local restaurant, some tinned food and other staples. One migrant agrees to distribute the provisions – not enough to go round for sure, but something.

When we return the following day some of the migrants become unhappy at our presence – they say they are tired of journalists photographing them in this condition. One throws a stone. An angry confrontation begins, people gather around, there's shouting, in Italian, in French, in English. The situation is diffused only by the intervention of our guide, and we agree to leave.

Some of the migrants are drunk. One, outside the camp's entrance, pulls up his trouser leg to show an injury he says prevents him from getting any work. 'I have two children back at home [in Africa], no papers, now this [the injury]... what can I do?'

Many want to return home but are trapped – with no money, no documents and no means of escape. At a nearby slum, Mambure is one of twenty workers living in a disused farm house. From Burkina Faso, he has spent nine years in Italy. 'Every day we go into [Rosarno] to wait for work harvesting oranges,' he says.

'But at the moment there is no work, it is difficult to earn money... all of us here have no work,' he says. Mambure says he's managed to do 'less than a month' of paid work in this year's orange harvest.  'I only have one statement,' he says, 'I want to go home.'

The workers don't want The Ecologist to see the conditions they are forced to endure inside the farm building. 

A few miles miles up the road, however, at another crumbling house – until recently home to a group of migrants – pots and pans, empty cereal packets and food wrappers litter the stone floor. There's a fireplace in what served as a makeshift kitchen. It's filthy. Upstairs, clothing, bedding and rubbish is strewn across a room that had clearly been used for sleeping. Outside a mattress has been thrown in a ditch.

About half of Rosarno's seasonal workers – including most of the Eastern European migrants who also come to region seeking employment – live in paid-for accommodation, organised by gangmasters or through private landlords. Even here conditions can be poor, say welfare groups, with many migrants living in overcrowded flats or apartments.

Hard labour

For those that find work during the annual harvest, conditions can be tough and the pay low. Migrants typically earn around 25 Euros for a day's work. It can be less or more depending on the individual farmer, the market rate for oranges, and whether a gangmaster makes deductions for transport or other 'services'.

At one farm visited by The Ecologist, half a dozen migrants are working in the orange groves, picking the fruit – some standing on the ground, some having climbed into the trees themselves – before loading them into crates and stacking ready for collection.

Sogo talks while he harvests. He's 28, and from Mali, and says that although the work is hard he has managed to save some money to help build a house back home.

'I've been in Italy for ten years. If production is good then we manage to get paid,' he says. The migrant says he spent his first year in Italy in the 'ghetto' – the slums in Rosarno – although he know lives in an apartment in the town.

He never planned to stay in Italy for so long. 'I have 30 people in my family and originally, 10 years ago, my plan was to return home,' he says. 'Now it is difficult to earn [enough] money to send home [to support them].'

The workers at this farm won't confirm how much they are paid or whether gangmasters are involved. The farmer who employs them, Alberto Callello, who mainly produces oranges for eating and also some industrial-grade fruit destined for processing, maintains workers get a reasonable deal. '25 Euros is the minimum wage, it is a poor wage but it is a poor economy. Poor but not exploitation,' he says.

Callello, who is part of a co-operative representing 8 or 9 farmers, and who is currently trying to convert to organic production, blames the economics of orange farming and the wider supply chain for the conditions.

He says the market price has fallen below the cost of production: 'I get 7 cents per kilo for industrial oranges (used for concentrates) but need 8 cents per kilo to pay workers, so there is a paradox.' 'At the end of the chain is a clash with poor people,' he says.

The farmer sells his oranges to a local processing plant which in turn sells to larger processing companies which then process the fruit for large food and drink firms.

Medical aid

Back in Rosarno, the medical charity Emergency is operating its twice-weekly mobile clinic – a specially converted coach with consultation and treatment rooms, and facilities for carrying out basic medical procedures.

Staff say they expect to see 40 patients tonight: 'They come in with muscle and skeletal conditions, respiratory problems, and may need specialist doctors such as a dentist,' says Dr Luca Corso.

'We have started to see, particularly since the beginning of January, some cases that can be linked to working activities; mainly the improper use of pesticides and fungicides used during this season', the doctor says.

'Mostly cases of irritative phenomena, for example contact dermatitus in exposed areas such as hands and face, or conjuctivitus because the eyes are exposed.'

Angelo Moccia, operations manager of the clinic, says that conditions here are worse than those he'd previously encountered in Congo. Andrea Freda, the clinic's nurse, adds: 'Conditions are not so different in Afghanistan to here.'

Although officially Italian hospitals are supposed to offer treatment to migrants – even those in the country illegally – there have been cases of workers being refused treatment, according to medical officials, with some migrants afraid to seek help because they fear being sent to interment camps.

Medicins Sans Frontiers previously responded to the crisis by distributing emergency hygiene kits consisting of sleeping bags, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. In a report the group described conditions in southern Italy quite simply as 'hell.'

The situation briefly improved in early 2010 after the authorities intervened following the shooting of two migrants in Rosarno: the incident led to widespread rioting, and revenge attacks by local vigilantes. Shocked by the ferocity of the violence, and with pictures of the disturbances broadcast around the world, the authorities bussed many migrants out of town for their own safety. Several of the larger slums were demolished.

Workers quickly flocked back however and conditions deteriorated. In response, the authorities have recently moved to house some migrants in temporary refugee camps.

The Ecologist was given a tour of a brand new 'tent city' constructed next to an industrial estate just outside the town. The camp, although basic, will see six migrants housed per tent, each equipped with proper beds, light and heating. Flush toilets stand ready outside. You'd expect to find a camp such as this on the edge of a conflict zone, or after a major natural disaster.

In a nearby compound, local government officials show us a more permanent camp recently constructed. Eighteen portacabins house up to 108 migrants. There's an infirmary where a doctor visits once a week, a laundry, and each cabin has two rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen.

The migrants acknowledge that life in the camp is better than in the 'ghetto', but they still see no easy way out. 'It is a big question', says Daniel, 28, 'How do you go home?' Having been held in a detention camp in Libya after leaving Ghana, once released he quickly joined a boat heading towards Europe. But it hit rocks off Sicily, he says, 'Three migrants drowned... after we landed the police rescued us.'

Elisabetta Tripodi, the mayor of Rosarno – who is forced to live under 24-hour protection; this is Mafia country – later tells us that there are plans to expand the number of beds in camps by 150. Tripodi acknowledges the migrant issue is a scandal – bad for the town and for those involved: 'The biggest problem concerns inclusion – they stay only for a few months, they arrive and go, arrive and go.'

Unfair prices

Italy is a major producer of citrus fruits – around 3.6 million tonnes are cultivated from approximately 170,000 hectares of land. Calabria is the second biggest orange growing area, producing more than 870,000 tons in 2009. The majority of the oranges grown around Rosarno are cheap, industrial grade fruits favoured for processing into concentrates.

Italy's orange sector faces increasing competition from other producing countries including Brazil, China, the US, Mexico and Spain. According to Pietro Molinaro from Coldiretti Calabria, the regional branch of Italy's largest farmers association, overseas competition combined with the low prices paid by large companies has resulted in orange growing becoming unviable for many farmers. They are – literally, he says – 'being squeezed.'

'This area is facing a big problem: the price big companies pay for this juice is not fair,' he says. 'All in all they force the small processing plants in the area – those that squeeze oranges and produce concentrate – to underpay for [the] raw materials.'

Farmers themselves say this is why they are reliant on cheap, migrant labour: 'Young Italians are not likely to want to work in the fields... the only way is to use migrant workers because of the low wages connected to the harvest,' says Alberto Callello.
Molinaro believes it was this situation that ultimately led to the violence in 2010. 'This twisted mechanism is the cause of the riots in Rosarno two years ago. International media showed only racism, social tensions, not the real reason...,' he says.

Campaigners say the nature of the current orange supply chain – with processors sourcing from multiple co-operatives and farmers – and the widespread use of migrant workers, make it virtually impossible for companies sourcing from the region to avoid procuring 'tainted oranges'.

Coldiretti Calabria last year wrote to all the firms it says purchase orange ingredients from Calabria, including Coca Cola, highlighting what it believes are unfair prices paid for raw materials – a situation it says is partly fostering unpleasant conditions for workers. The group claims it never received a response.

Coca Cola said that to the best of its knowledge the letter shown to it by The Ecologist had not been seen by its office. The company said it was incorrectly addressed and related to another company's product.   

Coca Cola promotes its Fanta drink in Italy as being '100 per cent' made from Italian oranges. The company confirmed it sources from the Calabrian region, but said its supplier was given a clean bill of health by an independent auditor as recently as last May. It admitted however that the nature of the supply chain means it is unable to audit every farm or consortium whose juice may be bought by its supplier.

There is no suggestion the company or its direct suppliers are involved in bad practice or wrongdoing.

In a detailed statement the company said: 'We have reviewed our audit records and found that our most recent audit of our juice supplier in the Reggio Calabria area was in May 2011. We have confirmed that none of the concerns you have raised was found during that independent, third-party audit. The majority of the juice we procure from this area is used in products for our Italian market.

'Our supplier is a juice processor that gets most of its raw materials from consortiums or collectives that buy from many farmers. While we cannot audit every consortium and independent farmer, our supplier does have declarations from a wide number of the consortiums stating that they comply with Italian labour laws. While we certainly encourage respect for human rights and good workplace practices throughout the entire supply chain, we are limited to auditing only our direct suppliers,' the statement continued.

The company added that it is a 'is a firm supporter of workplace and human rights', and pointed to several examples, including the convening of workshops on child labour and human trafficking.

In Rosarno, as word spreads about the establishment of the tent camps, many migrants are trying to find out how – and when – they could be moved. But despite this, there's continued anger and resentment at the treatment they receive, and the intolerable conditions they endure.

Diallo, from Guinea, who's been prominent in trying to raise the plight of the orange workers with politicians and in the media, is blunt: 'I tell them, we are not criminals, I am working, they are exploiting us. We don't have nobody to help... [this is] apartheid, colonisation, silent colonisation, silent slavery. There's no future.'

Note: some names have been changed

Additional research & reporting: Gianluca Martelliano

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