Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Struggling on the wrong side of the chain: labour exploitation in global agriculture

This week’s special series discusses the working conditions, the dynamics of exploitation, and the degree of unfreedom of those trapped on the wrong side of local and global agriculture value chains.

Marco Gardini
13 November 2017

Workers from the Palmas del Cesar African palm company in Colombia. Solidarity/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

In a famous passage of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a tenant farmer and a man on a tractor debate the bank’s demand that the latter demolish the former’s house and drive him from the land his family had cultivated for generations:

 “Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That’s what makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

The “monster” that men created, but could not control, did not die with the Great Depression. It continues to resurface, assuming different names and forms across time and changing economic and political contexts. According to current neoliberal beliefs, there is a growing need for refined theoretical methodologies, technical procedures, and privatisation policies to develop what are increasingly known as effective ‘agriculture value chains’: i.e. the integrated range of value adding activities that theoretically link farmers to new global or regional markets, improve and ‘rationalise’ agricultural production, and keep prices low for a growing global population.

As often happens, however, the naming of concept like ‘agriculture value chain’ carries with it unintended meanings and a certain degree of bitter irony. For those who have dedicated themselves to the study of old and new slaveries and forms of labour exploitation in the agrarian sector, for example, the word ‘chain’ acquires obviously a very different connotation. It evokes a number of questions about who possesses the power to forge, enlarge, and hold these chains, to make huge profits out of them, and to trap others within them.

The articles in this week’s special series seek to provide answers for these questions as they relate to global agriculture – from Tanzania to the Dominican Republic, from Italy to Costa Rica, from Chad to Madagascar. They discuss the working conditions, the dynamics of exploitation, and the degree of unfreedom for all those trapped on the wrong side of local and global agriculture value chains. All these contributions are based on extensive fieldwork, and explore individual and collective histories to shed light on the changes and continuities of labour exploitation in the agrarian sectors around the world.

One industry, many forms of exploitation

By considering the case of a privatised estate in Tanzania, for example, Joanny Belair explores the collateral socio-economic impacts that neoliberal reforms have had on local peasants. Going beyond the self-promoting images of a big private company working in the sugar industry – which emphasise the company’s attention to employee needs as well as its overall importance as a regional employment generator – Belair demonstrates how workers must face exploitative labour conditions, social insecurity, and chains of indebtedness, while villagers are exposed to increasing land dispossession. Belair questions whether those at the bottom of the local social hierarchy truly benefit from large-scale agricultural investments, and suggests otherwise by showing how new opportunities are captured by local elites, and how the social costs of these investments are borne by the most vulnerable Tanzanian citizens.

The pains associated with the transition to a neoliberal framework are also described by Raúl Zecca Castel in his account of the working conditions of Haitian labourers who migrated to the Dominican Republic. Zecca Castel provides a vivid picture of how the recently privatised Dominican sugarcane plantations profit from the increased socio-economic vulnerability of migrants, who constitute a cheap and unorganised workforce. The Dominican government, which from the 1950s to the 1990s promoted the migration of unskilled labour from Haiti, is now denying citizenship to thousands of those initial migrants’ descendants, effectively pushing them into the ranks of irregular migrants who make up the plantation workforce.

Who possesses the power to forge, enlarge, and hold these chains, to make huge profits out of them, and to trap others within them?

The exploitation of migrant labour is also at the centre of Irene Peano’s contribution to this series. By analysing industrial tomato production in Foggia, Italy, Peano explores the formal and informal methods of controlling migrants that structure local dynamics of exploitation. In this context, asylum-seeker reception centres and shantytowns, labour camps, migrant detention centres and prisons contribute to form a ‘special economic zone’ that serve to discipline, govern, and extract profit from migrant labour. At the same time, Peano points out that containment and control are never total, and draws attention to the forms of resistance and self-organisation that also characterise these spaces.

Despite the increasing importance of migrants, and their exploitation, for global agriculture, the citizenship divide is not the only axis worth considering. Drawing on her analysis of sexual harassment in the Costa Rican banana industry, Layla Zaglul Ruiz shows how gender also influences the degree of exploitation and vulnerability of labourers. She describes how forms of male domination are translated onto the shop floor of the banana farm, and how gendered forms of exploitation interlace with workplace hierarchy.

Dynamics of exploitation are furthermore not limited to employer/employee relations, but also extend to small farmers who control their own land but lose control of production. Valerio Colosio explores the debt trap in which farmers of the Guéra region of Chad find themselves when obliged to sell their products in disadvantageous conditions. This makes them vulnerable to traders who loan them cereals during the hungry season with high interest rates, and then claim back a much larger part of the harvest later on. However, this scenario is still considered by farmers as preferable to “working for someone else”, a condition perceived as unworthy for the household head and perilous to the following harvest. As Colosio points out, the unequal relation between farmers and traders is part of a longer history that, after the colonial abolition of slavery, transformed precolonial, slave raiding elites into a powerful class of traders able to exert a substantial degree of control over agricultural production.

Finally, the last contribution explores the post-slavery context of the Malagasy highlands that sees landless slave descendants continuing to work for former masters – a situation frequently seen by both sides as ‘win-win’. Sharecropping agreements, however, also reinforce power structures, economic inequalities, and the re-production of statutory distinctions. When that system breaks down, and former masters start to slip from their dominant position, what was once a ‘win-win’ situation has a tendency to quickly turn against the sharecroppers. The ‘win-win game’ rhetoric hides the fact that sharecropping agreements contribute to reinforce the social prestige of landowner at the expense of the tenants, thus exposing the latter to the risk of being stigmatised as a slave-descendant even when they are not.

Taken together, these contributions provide fresh ethnographic material for an analysis from below of not only the many chains that tie down agricultural workers in the current era, but also of the different, often hidden tactics that subordinated people use to renegotiate their marginalised positions, reinforce their rights, or simply struggle to survive. These stories demonstrate how similar dynamics affect very different, albeit increasingly interconnected, places, and remind us that an exploitative relation is never a private or circumstantiated problem, but always a collective history. This is as crucial today as it was in 1939, when John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath:

“One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate – 'We lost our land.’ The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first ‘we’ there grows a still more dangerous thing: ‘I have a little food’ plus ‘I have none.’ If from this problem the sum is ‘We have a little food’; the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. ‘Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket - take it for the baby’. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning from ‘I’ to ‘we.’

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’."


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Joanny Belair, Raúl Zecca Castel, Irene Peano, and Layla Zaglul Ruiz to participate in the discussion.

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