A fruit and vegetable market in Italy. Karen/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)
People in Italy have been talking about the serious exploitation of migrant farm workers for years. Dozens of inquiries, documentaries, and news reports have told us what happens in the fields and the tent cities. These reports often frame exploitation in terms of ‘slave labour’, ‘modern slavery’, and so on. They concentrate on the victimisation of the vulnerable.
What they don’t talk about very often is the supply chain, i.e. the path that begins in the fields and finishes on the shelves of the supermarkets. The general public doesn’t have a deep understanding of how responsibilities are distributed along this supply chain between multinationals, corporations, large-scale distribution companies, temporary agencies, transport firms, or wholesalers, and they don’t understand the many ways in which workers can be exploited at each link.
This is why, one year ago, the #FilieraSporca (‘dirty supply chain’) campaign was established. Our goal is to trace the whole of the classic orange supply chain in and beyond Italy and thus to make clear who is exploiting who and at which points in Italian agriculture. In order to do so, we have interviewed key stakeholders, including agricultural workers, farmers, experts, trade unions, and sent a questionnaire to large retailers in Italy such as Coop, Conad, Carrefour, Esselunga and Auchan, and also to big corporations such as Coca–Cola.
What have we found so far?
The harvesting of Italian oranges, like so many agricultural products, involves many of the same things you see in a refugee camp after an earthquake: tents, sanitary kits, containers. This has led some to liken the orange harvest to a kind of ‘humanitarian emergency’. But we believe that it’s a misnomer to call something that is structural an ‘emergency’, for instead it’s a mode of production.
The first feature of this mode of production is its intensive use of specifically migrant labour. This is because migrant labour can often be more easily underpaid or coerced, due to the vulnerabilities inherent in migrants’ uncertain legal and social status. While until a few years ago most of the exploited migrant workers in agriculture were irregular, today they are mainly refugees, asylum-seekers, and EU migrants (especially Romanians and Bulgarians).
The second feature is that workers are often housed in sub-standard, illegal accommodation. That accommodation includes dilapidated hovels, tent-cities without heating, and shanty towns. The largest of these settlements are in southern Italy and are commonly called ‘ghettos’. But there are also small tent-cities in the north of the country. Workers there live in conditions of marginalisation and isolation.
Why is this? In large part it’s because firms and farmers want a cheap labour force which costs little to maintain. Seasonal farm workers, indeed, receive the minimum part of the oranges’ retail price: a kilo of fruit is usually sold at the supermarket for €1.20, but farm workers are paid only nine cents on a regular contract and five cents or less when they have no contract.
At the same time, firms and farmers need a flexible labour force that will come and go with the seasonal harvest. This is also why labour is often organised in teams and under the control of team leaders, or so-called ‘caporali’, who at times will be criminals and at others may be violent. Organising workers in teams makes it easier to control them. In addition, the ‘caporali’ provide farmers with necessary services, such as transportation and recruitment, which are often inadequately provided by local institutions.
In this context, it is far from uncommon to find migrants controlled by violence, especially in Sicily and Calabria, suffering from injustices including missed payments, threats, physical assault, racism, and sexual exploitation.
A different kind of supply chain?
Does the supply chain have to be like this? Does it have to feature violence, illegality and a lack of transparency? A fair supply chain should be short, transparent, and all actors involved should respect workers’ rights with regard to payments, housing, and minimum wages. A transparent supply chain, where all the steps are clear to see, increases the responsibility of companies all along its length. It makes exploitation economically un-viable by making it easier to trace, on the part of the authorities and consumers.
We believe that a ‘clean supply chain’, in contrast to the dirty one that we are studying, should involve products labeled not only with their country of origin but also with information regarding who the suppliers of the product are and where they sit along the supply chain. Mandatory tracking and clear labels could lead consumers towards the ‘right’ choice, and that could reduce the chances of products being produced by severely exploited workers.