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Subcontracting and forced labour in Italy: a tale of depoliticised labour relations

In Italy, discourses around labour subcontracting in the agricultural sector serve an important purpose: obscuring the root causes of labour exploitation.

Luigi Galiazzo/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the last few years, issues of labour subcontracting and forced labour in the Italian agricultural sector have gained significant traction, especially after the shocking deaths of agrarian workers were brought to light in 2015. Discussions around these events have been dominated by the view that labour subcontracting and extreme labour exploitation somehow deviate from standard labour relations and are instead related to illegal activities perpetrated either by networks of organised crime – the (in-)famous Italian Mafia – or by a few 'bad apple' employers, infecting the otherwise smooth functioning of the economic system. This perspective has had major policy repercussions, successfully obscuring one inescapable reality: labour subcontracting and forced labour, far from being exceptional, are part and parcel of contemporary agricultural production in Italy.

Discourses and policy implications

In 2010, the so-called ‘facts of Rosarno’ marked an important turning point in Italy as the moment when appalling labour conditions for farmworkers began receiving attention in media and policy circles. This was after a violent riot erupted in a little town in southern Italy between migrants – that were mostly employed in the surrounding fields – and the local population, following a racist attack perpetrated against two men from Togo. Crucially, this outbreak prompted the media and policymakers to increasingly invoke ‘slavery’ or ‘coercion’ in their narrative of the caporalato system. The contemporary significance of caporalato refers to the practice of 'illegally' recruiting and coercing workers, especially immigrants, by caporale (gangmasters).

Labour subcontracting and forced labour, far from being exceptional, are part and parcel of contemporary agricultural production in Italy.

In the summer of 2011, another important episode drew attention to these informal systems of labour recruitment and forced labour: the two-week labour strike of about 400 migrant farmworkers in the southern agrarian village of Nardò, who were demanding better pay, decent working hours, and fair labour conditions. While this certainly helped raise public awareness around the dire working conditions faced by many workers in the informal economy, the strike led to one single concrete result: a law against 'illegal labour brokerage and labour exploitation', otherwise known as the Caporalato Law, according to which:

'anyone carrying out an organised brokerage activity, either by recruiting workers or organising their labour activities characterised by exploitation, through violence, threat or intimidation (emphasis added), taking advantage of workers' vulnerability, is punished with five to eight years of reclusion, and with a 1.000,00 to 2.000,00 euros fine per recruited worker'.

One of the most important features of this law was the creation of 'exploitation indexes', one of the first attempts in Italy to define labour exploitation in concrete terms, based on four sub-categories: pay; working hours and conditions; safety, hygiene and health protection at work; degrading housing conditions. However, these exploitation indexes initially applied only to cases involving an explicit act of coercion – through violence, threat or intimidation – which needed to be reported and proved. The law therefore excluded cases of ‘economic coercion’ resulting from extreme poverty, or the need to face unexpected expenditures, two scenarios where workers may seek out caporals voluntarily and accept labour exploitation due to their limited options.

Even when the caporalato law was amended to expand the definition of labour exploitation to cases that were not necessarily connected to violence; threat; or intimidation, public discourse around labour subcontracting and forced labour still followed a double 'discursive strategy', which persists today. On the one hand, these practices are attributed to the illegal activities of organised crime networks, i.e. the Mafia. This is paralleled by the ‘bad apple’ employer rhetoric, contending that labour exploitation is the result of a few greedy, unscrupulous employers who wish to profit from the exploitation of farmworkers. Both perspectives avoid taking seriously the structural roots of labour exploitation, and shift responsibility onto gangmasters, who are portrayed as operating beyond the bounds of the ‘legal’ economy.

The result of these two dominant discourses have also included policy measures by the Italian left-wing government to fight labour brokering and labour exploitation, such as the 'Network of Quality Agrarian Labour', a measure included in the Campolibero law, or Competitiveness Law. The purpose of this measure is to address informal labour and the labour exploitation of migrants in agriculture through the creation of a network in which 'good' agrarian firms – those who can prove that they have never been convicted of an offence of labour exploitation – can label their goods with an ethical certificate. The Competitiveness Law therefore rewards individual firms’ ‘good behaviour’ with an opportunity for competitive advantage, while successfully delinking the issue of extreme labour exploitation in agricultural production from reforms in the (global) political economy.

Examining the root causes

In making labour exploitation appear ‘exceptional’ the Italian government is depoliticising labour relations: it is separating them from the overarching socio-economic processes stemming from the current capitalist configuration and obscuring the context-related root causes of labour exploitation.

The reality is that labour subcontracting is the direct result of a reconfiguration of production that started in the early 1980s.These changes impacted both in the developing and developed countries; and are mainly characterised by a shift towards export-oriented production. This resulted in the formation of global commodity chains, which involve increasingly complex outsourcing and subcontracting practices to boost profits while reducing the costs of production. In the context of Italian agriculture, this prompted a deep re-organisation of agricultural production, consisting of the rise of agricultural value chains. In the end of the 1990s, the process of liberalisation and deregulation of the Italian retail sector led to the spread of 'modern' forms of food distribution. Since then, supermarkets and hypermarkets came to control more than 70% of the total Italian food market.

Agricultural production in Italy is highly fragmented, with a massive contribution from small-scale farms. According to the latest agricultural census, almost 70% of 1.620.884 farms participating in agricultural production are small farms (less than 5 hectares).These small farmer suppliers are being pressured by a handful of supermarkets who demand stringent requirements in terms of quality, quantity, delivery schedules, and, above all, price. In order to remain profitable, farmers pass on the burden to the only ‘flexible’ cost: labour. They achieve this by hiring labour subcontractors, or carporals, who rely mainly on migrant labour, typically from the same country of origin. They organise groups of workers, most of the time on a seasonal basis, and bring them to the field. Caporals may deduct a daily sum from the workers' pay and act in a despotic manner with workers, but this is not necessarily the rule. In fact, many of them are not professional contractors, they are simply workers themselves who are recruiting a cheap workforce among their relatives and friends on behalf of their employers during peak seasons, without necessarily collecting recruitment fees from the workers in question.

Most workers look to recruiters as key figures for the fulfilment of their survival needs.

While on the one hand the caporalato system emerged, first of foremost, as a response to the needs of employers, it also meets the need of the most vulnerable workers, particularly migrants and women in search of a certain degree of 'labour stability'. The deregulation of the labour market and the dismantling of labour protections since the 1980s – in which Italian 'leftist' governments have been complicit in – along with the tightening of migration policies, have increased workers' vulnerability by preventing them from achieving long-term economic security. This is why most workers look to recruiters as key figures for the fulfilment of their survival needs, and also why they are willing to accept extremely exploitative work.

The forms of exploitation experienced by seasonal subcontracted migrant agricultural workers are therefore far from exceptional; they are an integral feature of the contemporary agricultural production in Italy. Policies need to reflect this reality if the Italian government is serious about addressing labour exploitation.

About the author

Lucilla Salvia has a MsC and PhD in Economic and Social Sciences from 'La Sapienza' University of Rome and a MsC in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her research interests include labour, agrarian relations, and global commodity chains.


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