Despite the many developments in agriculture, the sector is still heavily dependent on cheap labour. Thus, labour exploitation is rife in the Southern European countryside, present in many countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece.

What is gangmastering?

Agricultural slavery is organised in a system by which an intermediary – the gangmaster – liaises between the agricultural property and its workers. In Italy, such gangmasters are called caporali and, as in other Mediterranean countries, they often preside over every facet of a worker’s life. The last Agromafie report compares the organisation of the caporalato (gangmastering structure) to that of a pyramid. Indeed, while the corporal-boss is at the top, the middle of the pyramid is composed of various elements such as legal advisors, logistics officers, and other technicians/professionals – all of which are Italians – and the bottom is reserved for recruiters, drivers, handymen and workers/employees – all of which are migrants –.

As denounced by the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam), workers in the fruit and vegetable sectors across Italy have been victims of many forms of abuse in recent years; these include but are not limited to:

  • Wages far below the minimum wage prescribed by collective labour agreements;
  • The systematic violation of working time regulations, including the denial of daily breaks, annual leave, and weekly rest periods;
  • Unsafe and unhealthy working conditions;
  • Extremely poor housing conditions and quality of life, with workers forced to live in hovels, tent cities, or containers.
  • Employer’s excessive control over workers’ lives, including outright surveillance or other forms of abuse of their vulnerable social and legal status.
  • Sexual abuse, physical or verbal, and violence against women.

Some figures about agricultural exploitation

It is estimated that there are 430,000 workers involved in caporalato-type structures in Italy, 132,000 of whom are defined as “highly vulnerable”, immigrants whose status renders them particularly vulnerable to blackmail and exploitation. The Italian Central Statistic System (ISTAT) estimates that the underground/illegal economy accounts for €211 billion a year overall, with an 11.9% incidence on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The problem is so widespread that irregular work – work that does not submit to tax or social security laws – is indeed considered a mere “structural feature” of the Italian national labour market. As a matter of fact, in 2018 2,656,000 subordinate workers were considered to be in an “irregular position”. Although the numbers represent a decrease of 1.3% compared to 2017, irregular employment – or undeclared work – is still worth €79 billion a year, or 4.5% of the Italian GDP.

The most affected regions are Sicily, Calabria and Apulia in Southern Italy and Veneto and Lombardy in the North.

As highlighted by the International Organization for Migration – IOM in last June’s report, most of the exploited workers come from India, Senegal, Morocco, Pakistan, Mali, Gambia, Nigeria, Albania, China and Bangladesh.

Political solutions

On the 18th of April 2016 – a historic date for agricultural workers in Italy – immigrant workers organised a large strike all across the country. The labourers – mostly Indians – of the Agro Pontino region in the province of Latina organised this massive strike to demand decent living conditions and fair vages, rallying more than 5 thousand men and women to demonstrate under the Prefecture’s Headquarters, making their voices heard internationally.

After this date, something had to change in the Italian law framework: in October of the same year, Italy approved a new law against caporalato (L.n.199/2016) introducing stricter measures to curb the issue. These measures include penalties for employers, confiscation of assets, forms of protection for victims, and workplace inspections. The law has substantially updated the provisions of Article 603bis of the Italian Criminal Code, putting not only the intermediary – the gangmaster – but also the employer at risk of criminal sanctions for exploiting and abusing workers. Moreover, the crime is not linked exclusively to violent conduct and underlines lower wages than those agreed on by unions as an indicator of exploitation.

As underlined by a Terra! report, according to data from the National Labor Inspectorate, the 5,806 inspections carried out in 2019 revealed 5,340 cases subject to violations, of which 51% were “black work” (unregulated illegal labour). Only 408 measures of suspension of entrepreneurial activity were taken with 86% (350) of those revoked following intervening regularization. But unfortunately, while some sanctions are successfully implemented, the Italian government has failed to properly address the causes of this phenomenon. Indeed, in situations where the demand for seasonal labour is very high, caporalato remains a reliable recruitment tool.

Oxfam has proposed some practical measures in order to stop labour exploitation in the agricultural sector demanding, amongst other things, that the Italian Government implements binding legislation to prevent unfair trade practices that penalize small-scale farmers and exploit workers, promote greater traceability and transparency of the supply chain by imposing:

  • The obligation to publish the full list of suppliers to keep track of all the steps along the supply chain;
  • The obligation to impose a transparent labelling system that informs the consumer about the origin of the products and the individual steps taken to allow increased social control of the supply chain;
  • Introduce support mechanisms for small-scale producers.
  • Systematically address the issue of migration by providing legal and secure access channels and temporary work permits to avoid the exploitation of migrant workers whose grey legal status prevents them from denouncing their condition as exploited workers.

Oxfam does not only demand action from the Italian government but from others in the supply chain such as supermarkets, asking them to:

  • Demonstrate full awareness of the risks of human rights violations and the workers’ rights that exist in their supply chains and commit to neutralizing them;
  • Increase efforts to permanently abandon all unfair commercial practices;
  • Improve levels of transparency throughout the supply chain by making information about the suppliers they use public and by choosing to purchase only from those that demonstrate a strong commitment to transparency.

What we all can do to solve the issue

Caporalato, being a problem linked to large-scale distribution, can be partially dismantled thanks to consumer choices. According to the National Confederation of farmers Coldiretti, for every euro spent by the consumer 60% goes to commercial distribution, 23% to the processing industry and only 17% to the farmer who, in order to mitigate costs, is forced to resort to illegal employment, negatively impacting the rights of workers.

So, what can citizens do in everyday life for stop this vicious cycle? First it is important to keep informed about the supply chains and commit ourselves not to consume the most at-risk products found on supermarket shelves until supermarkets provide us with detailed information and assurance of the respect of workers’ rights. In the past few years some associations were created in Italy: NO CAP was born in 2011 from the initiative of the activist Yvan Sagnet as a movement to oppose the caporalato in agriculture and to promote the spread of respect for human rights as well as social and environmental issues. They created the No Cap brand to enhance and reward the commitment of companies that share principles and values based on respect for man and the environment, but also for consumers to raise awareness and orient them towards more ethical choices so that they are not unwittingly co-responsible for a system of exploitation. Ethical buying can be done in the local markets where Fondazione Campagna Amica – active since since 2008 – organises and promotes the points of excellence of the Italian agricultural supply chain from producer to consumer and km0.

In conclusion, being better and responsible consumers can have a positive impact on the entire food and agricultural system by allowing for a real change in the situation of exploited workers.   

Leave a Reply