Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Why show your cards? The problem of transparency in agricultural supply chains

Governments promote transparency as a method of tackling exploitation, however the Italian agricultural sector demonstrates that such measures are often not capable of addressing the relations of power that characterise supply chains.

Letizia Palumbo
27 May 2016
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Men harvest olives in Italy. Sean Perry/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

In an attempt to prevent and address exploitation in supply chains, many governments have adopted transparency regulations over the past few years or promoted instruments, such as certifications of quality, aimed at incentivising companies to stay within the bounds of the law while respecting the rights of workers. At the same time, they have aimed at informing consumers about companies’ efforts to prevent labour rights violations and, thus, about the origin and quality of the products they buy.

In Italy, the government has recently launched the ‘network of quality agricultural work’ (‘rete del lavoro agricolo di qualità’). This seeks to develop a list of agricultural companies that respect fair working conditions and to provide them with a certification of quality. While such a network has been welcomed as an important tool to tackle labour exploitation and illegal gang-mastering (caporalato), the approach to labour exploitation on which this instrument seems to rely – and consequently, its efficacy – is highly questionable.

Exploitation beyond illegal gang-mastering

The network of quality agricultural work was initially promoted by the Italian government in September 2015, when the media was rife with sensationalist reports about abusive gangmasters (caporali) illegally recruiting workers and inserting them into exploitative working contexts. In fact, the network was billed as one of the main instruments for the ‘fight’ against illegal gang-mastering; a fight which, as the minister of agriculture, food and forestry affairs affirmed, is among the main priorities of the government.  

In recent years, media and government policies in Italy have mainly focused on abusive gangmasters, considering them as the main culprits for labour exploitation, especially in the agricultural sector. Illegal gang-mastering, from this perspective, has been seen as an anomalous phenomenon undermining a system which tends to be clean.

Such an approach, upon which the network of quality agricultural work is also grounded, drives attention away from the root causes. In particular, it diverts attention away from the role of governments in facilitating labour exploitation as well as those of the diverse actors involved in supply chains (e.g. large retailers, traders, processing industries, producers and caporali). These actors tend, at different levels, to increase profit margins by reducing labour costs, leading to a compression or attenuation of the rights of workers. In many cases, this can lead to exploitation.

Requirements and controls

The requirements that companies have to meet to be part of the network are not sufficient to guarantee that they respect of labour rights or that they do not exploit workers. For example, the requirements do not explicitly include the upholding of national and provincial collective agreements on agricultural work.

According to the law decree 91/2014, which established the network, once a company is enrolled it is subjected to fewer controls. This is a clear contradiction, as imposing fewer controls facilitates their ability to bypass or violate the law. It also helps them to take advantage of the fact that exploited workers rarely have the possibility to report abuse, as they are often subjected to blackmail, are hampered by an irregular immigration status, or simply do not want to lose their job. Having a certification of quality does not prevent companies from violating the rights of workers and subjecting them to serious exploitative working conditions. As a case in point, in April 2016 a company based in Bari, Italy, which had a certification of quality, was found to be using Italian and migrant farm workers who had been recruited by abusive gang-masters and worked under exploitative conditions.

Pushed by trade unions and organisations, the government has recently announced that inspection activities in companies – and, so it seems, in those registered as part of the network – will be strengthened in the next months. However, it remains to be seen which criteria will be used to conduct labour inspections.

Build it and they will come?

The network has so far proved largely unattractive: out of a total of 740,000 companies in all Italy, only 300 have applied for inclusion in the network. As emerges from my fieldwork in the agricultural sector in Italy, particularly in Sicily, the lack of participation may be due to a variety of reasons. First, some companies do not want to be ‘burdened’ by additional bureaucracy. Many are also suspicious, as they see these instruments as a further form of control. Lastly, many prefer to ‘stay’ in illegality because it is more convenient or more advantageous, as they do not pay either fair salaries or contributions. Thus they decide to forego the added value that the participation in the network may offer. Unfortunately, my fieldwork has made clear that in some contexts exploitation and labour violations have become so normalised that firms will simply discard transparency measures unless they offer a concrete and more convenient alternative.

When promoting transparency can make a difference

Adopted mainly with the aim of addressing abusive gang-masters, seen as the primary culprits of labour exploitation, the network of quality agricultural work does not address the relations of power characterising supply chains. It thus seems incapable of providing a real, concrete alternative to a system of exploitation, and leaves unchanged the model of business that leads to workers’ rights violations and abuse.

Efficient measures promoting transparency and accountability, such as certifications by governments, should support the development of supply chains which rely not on the reduction of labour costs but, instead, on the quality of the product, the well-being and rights of workers, and the protection of the environment. In other words, certifications should be able to effectively ensure that upholding these three issues constitutes a ‘value’ in the market.

In this sense, such initiatives should be supported by effective labour inspections and enforcement of labour standards, addressing the impunity with which some violations of labour rights are committed. At the same time, it is also necessary to implement policies aimed at the structural factors fostering the vulnerability of workers, and especially migrant workers, to abuse and exploitation.

Only by implementing a variety of concerted actions, including measures promoting transparency, would it be possible to alter and clean up a supply chain system that is characterised by an unequal distribution of the wealth produced, and builds upon the poverty and precariousness of workers and their vulnerability to being blackmailed.

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