Migrant workers face 'severe exploitation' in Italy's farm sector

tomato slaves
Southern Italy's tomato fields are blighted by exploitation and abuse of migrant workers. Photo: Beatrice Crippa Muti / Flai-Cgil
Amnesty International report calls for urgent action to tackle 'widespread' abuse of migrants in the food sector. This follows two Ecologist investigations into 'slave labour' connected to the Italian tomato and orange harvests. Andrew Wasley reports

Migrant workers toiling in Italy's sprawling agricultural sector face 'severe exploitation', according to research published by Amnesty International.

In a new report, the group claims the migrants typically receive wages well below the minimum wage, suffer arbitrary deductions from their pay, see pay delayed or withheld completely and endure long working hours in the country's fields, greenhouses and food processing factories.

The report focuses on the exploitation of workers from sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Asia carrying out seasonal or temporary jobs in the southern regions of Latina and Caserta, although campaigners say the problem is "widespread and systemic". Many migrants are in Italy without the appropriate paperwork, making them vulnerable to exploitative practices, say researchers.

The findings follow two major Ecologist investigations which revealed poverty wages and squalid living conditions for migrants working in Italy's annual tomato and orange harvests.

We uncovered how tomatoes linked to the abuses were being exported overseas - including to the UK - for sale in tins or as an ingredient in pizzas or other processed foods. And the soft drinks giant Coca Cola was later revealed as a buyer of concentrated juices from Calabria where many oranges are harvested by migrants found to be enduring poor conditions.

Amnesty is now calling on the Italian government to overhaul policies which the group says contribute to the exploitation of migrant labourers.

“In the past decade the Italian authorities have been whipping up public anxiety alleging that the country’s security is threatened by an uncontrollable ‘clandestine’ migration thus justifying strict migration measures. These measures put migrant workers in a precarious legal situation making them easy prey for exploitation,” researcher Francesca Pizzutelli said.

“While the authorities in any country are entitled to control immigration they must not do it at the expense of the human rights of all people in their territory.”

The Amnesty researchers found that many of the African migrants working in the Caserta area arrived in Italy illegally after travelling from Libya; others came from Northern Italy after losing their jobs because of the economic downturn.

All sought employment picking tomatoes or fruit, or working in the dairy sector - some also ended up working in construction or tourism.

Minimum wage

The report describes how groups of migrants seeking work in the region typically assemble at roundabouts or in public squares in the early morning, waiting to be picked up by potential employers. Although the minimum wage should be 5.7 euros per hour, Amnesty says the migrants are forced to take whatever is on offer as they have little bargaining power.

“Any job that anyone gives me I take”, one migrant worker from Ghana told researchers. The standard pay for a day of work is 20-30 euros - less than 3.75 euros an hour - the report found, with some migrants accepting as little as 15-20 euros a day.

Another worker interviewed, from Cote d’Ivoire, said: “Today I worked from 6am to 6pm, with a 30-minutes break, hoeing a field. I was paid 20 euros. If you don’t like the pay there are other people [who would work for that pay]”.

Migrants interviewed also claimed that non payment of wages is common: “Many migrant workers do not get paid. Once I found a job for a week. The employer owed me 250 euros but he disappeared. I don’t know his name and I cannot track him down,” a Tunisian worker said.

Campaigners say migrants have no way of challenging employers or highlighting exploitative practices.

“When amending their migration policies the Italian authorities must focus first and foremost on the rights of migrant workers regardless of their migration status. This includes providing them with effective access to justice,” said Pizzutelli. "This must include a safe and accessible mechanism that workers use to lodge complaints and pursue labour claims against employers, without fear of being arrested and deported."

Despite coming under fire from Amnesty, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano released a statement in December which criticised hostility to immigration in Italy as misguided. "Immigrants in Italy are an essential part of the population, the labour force, and also a source of vital energy for an aging society," Reuters reported him as saying.

Estimates put the number of illegal immigrants in Italy as around 500,000. Some move between Italy's major agricultural regions – including Puglia, Campania, Sicily, Calabria and Basilicata – seeking piece work during the seasonal harvests of oranges, lemons, kiwis, olives, tomatoes and melons.

In 2011, the Ecologist revealed how how thousands scratch a living picking tomatoes for export across Europe. Many were found to be forced to toil for up to 14 hours a day in harsh conditions for meagre wages, frequently under the control of gangmasters who make excessive deductions or charge inflated rates for transport, accommodation, food and other 'services'. Those complaining have faced violence and intimidation.

The tomato pickers were found to frequently live in squalor with home often being little more than a derelict building without power or any sanitation. As many as thirty people could be crammed into a single, one floor house. Healthcare was virtually non-existent and contact with the outside world for many was minimal.

Last year, Coca Cola was forced to examine how it could help facilitate 'fair' conditions and wages for workers harvesting oranges after the Ecologist highlighted similarly squalid living conditions and low pay for migrants harvesting fruit in Calabria, much of it destined for processing into juices or concentrates used in soft drinks.

Further reading:

Who is picking our food? Read the Ecologist's full special investigation into exploitation in the food supply chain 


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