The enslavement of immigrant workers in the Italian south has been an open secret for years. The agricultural workers’ union, FLAI-CGIL, suggested that “about 100,000 (mostly foreign) workers are forced to suffer workplace blackmail and dilapidated living conditions”. A system of certification for Italian and international supermarkets to say that their produce is not the fruit of slavery has also failed to eradicate the practice. On the contrary: for decades, organised crime and discount supermarkets have forced down the price of raw products, reducing payment along the food supply chain and creating a system that inevitably punishes the most vulnerable.
There is no question that the migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, but Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian anti-slavery activist who once worked picking tomatoes in Puglia, explains that the vulnerability is mental as much as physical. “When you have been enslaved,” Sagnet says, “it’s such a strong thing that your head begins to reason differently. It’s not the slavery of hundreds of years ago, when you were deprived of your liberty. Slavery in the 21st century doesn’t need chains, because they exploit a continual sense of intimidation that the most vulnerable people, like immigrants, feel.” Pay, already low, is even lower for “clandestines”. Many of the labourers we spoke to say gangmasters regularly withhold their identity documents and pay. Even if, in theory, they are free to leave, circumstances force them to stay put. “If you have worked for a week or for two weeks and they haven’t paid you,” says Sagnet, “and they have your documents, of course you don’t leave.”
Discrimination and violence against African workers gets worse in Italy with every passing day. Most of those picking crops in the Italian fields come from Africa, mainly – at the moment – from Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia. Agriculture requires a constant supply of labour. That supply is organised by gangmasters: agents who recruit seasonal workers and who are tasked with squeezing extra work out of them at the lowest possible cost. In the Italian south, the lives of foreign agricultural labourers are so cheap that many NGOs have described their conditions as a modern form of slavery. They live in isolated rural ruins or shanty towns. Some have Italian residency permits, but many don’t. A few have work contracts, although union organisers often find they are fake. Desperate for work, these labourers will accept any job in the fields even if the wages are far below, and the hours far above, union standards. Italy’s agricultural sector is booming, with food products making up 8.7% of Italy’s flagging GDP. The tomato industry alone is worth £2.8bn. Mass immigration is chaotic and uncontrolled, but the exploitation of immigrant workers is systematic. Migrants usually arrive in Italy with nothing but debts, after borrowing money from relatives back home to finance their journey to Europe. They usually know nobody when they reach their destination, and have no one to appeal to when in difficulty. Few even reveal to relatives back home the desperate situation in which they find themselves.
There are a few factors on which modern slavery thrives,” says Jakub Sobik, of the British NGO Anti-Slavery International: “Vulnerability, discrimination and a lack of the rule of law.”
In Italian agriculture, all of these conditions are present. Labourers without papers are considered outside the law, so they can expect no protection.
“You know that what you’re suffering isn’t right,” says Sagnet, “but you can’t denounce it because they’ll report you as an illegal immigrant.”
Salvini and his allies have turned logic on its head. For them, the victims aren’t the people who have been enslaved, but the Italian people. In their view, the criminals aren’t gangmasters who exploit the workers, but immigrants (“every day in Italy”, Salvini has tweeted, “immigrants commit 700 crimes”). One of his most familiar slogans is “la pacchia è finita” (“the free ride is over”) – echoing the popular myth that refugees and pro-immigration leftists have somehow got rich at the expense of ordinary Italians. Central to his message is the branding of modern slaves as criminals – saying nothing about slavery itself.
Supermarkets and their suppliers cite their use of certifications that are intended to reassure consumers that the goods we buy are produced under legal labour practices. But as these stories demonstrate, such figleaves are totally unreliable.
An immigrant worker called Njobo explains: “The Africans that are living here, most of them are living a fake life. They look for beautiful pictures and put them on Instagram. None of us would take a picture from this place and send it back.” He gestured around his makeshift home, revealing the dilapidation of his surroundings, the room dotted with shredded plastic rags and broken glass. Immigrants don’t only have debts to relatives, they are also desperate to obtain residency permits. The so-called Bossi-Fini law of 2002 (named after the two party leaders who drafted it) grants a residency permit only to those who have work contracts, meaning immigrants will put up with exploitation in order to obtain one. Those without residency permits are even more vulnerable. Many migrants have reported being beaten by employers, who also make sexual demands. Violence, especially against women, is alarmingly common. In 2017, 58% of asylum requests were turned down. The appeals process, too, was abolished. Those so-called diniegati – men and women denied asylum – invariably preferred to disappear into the nearby agricultural slums than risk deportation.
The migrants continue to be exploited for profit, through a system called caporalato. This is the practice through which the recruitment and payment of day-labourers is subcontracted to a gangmaster, the caporale. An ancient and sinister figure in Italian history, the caporale was – throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries – a proto-mafioso, the enforcer of the landlord’s will. The difference now is that the mafioso himself is likely to be a landowner, and it’s his orders that are being enforced by a usually non-Italian caporale.
The practice of caporalato has been illegal since a 2016 law banned intermediaries from exploiting vulnerable agricultural labourers (thanks, largely, to the courageous campaigning of Yvan Sagnet), and yet it is still ubiquitous. At 4am, you see hundreds of labourers cycling on main roads, without lights, to reach the pick-up points for transport to the fields. There, at crossroads and in lay-bys, the black labourers wait for a caporale and his minibus. No one knows if there will be work. “Work yes, work no,” says one phlegmatic man, moving his hands as if he were juggling invisible balls. The only certainty is that anyone who has agitated for fair pay or better conditions will be automatically excluded.
Costs vary, but in general the labourers have to pay around €3 for transportation to and from the fields. The vehicles usually carry double the legal limit of passengers, with men and women sitting on top of each other. The fields are so remote that, once there, the workers are obliged to buy sandwiches and water for €3-4. It costs 50 cents to charge a phone or, if anyone falls ill or has an accident, €20 to be taken to hospital.
Although piecework in agriculture is illegal, that is how all labourers are paid: the going rate is €3.50 to fill a chest with 300kg of tomatoes, or €5.50 if they are cherry tomatoes; workers receive €1 for a huge case of tangerines or 50 cents for one of oranges. The going rate for 100kg of grapes is €13. Even if you work at top speed, it is hard to make much more than €30 a day, and that’s before all those deductions. Contracts are essentially worthless: local unionists try to intervene, checking online to see if the correct social security payments have been made on behalf of workers. They very rarely have. Union representative Rocco Borgese shakes his head glumly: “We have lost our humanity,” he says. In terms of the local economy, the more helpless and homeless immigrants are, the cheaper it is to employ them.
Because the Bossi-Fini law ties residency to the possession of a work contract, many purchase a contract for hundreds of euros. Other times, the contract is issued in the name, not of the immigrant, but of a local man or woman who doesn’t work and has probably never been to the fields. This guarantees the local person agricultural unemployment benefit if, on paper, it looks as if they have worked for more than 53 days in the year. In 2015, 3,000 of these “false labourers” were discovered in Calabria. For the labourers dropped off at dawn in the fields, the work is relentless. In an article in the British Medical Journal in March, doctors representing the Italian medical charity, Doctors With Africa, wrote: “Over the past six years the number of agricultural workers who have died as a result of their work is more than 1,500.”
The sociologist and author Leonardo Palmisano, who investigates agricultural slavery and organised crime, says: “The mafia in the south controls the reception of immigrants. Centres for asylum-seekers have processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and the mafia is often part of the management.”
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Italian mafia bought land. Cash-rich from drug trafficking, and from embezzling public funds for construction, the mafia saw the land grab as an easy way to launder profits. When garbage-disposal contracts were privatised, land offered an opportunity to dump refuse, including toxic waste. But the mafia’s purchase of agricultural land received a new impetus when, in 2008, the EU’s subsidy system was changed: there was now a fixed sum of €1,500 per year per hectare, regardless of production. It was a further incentive to buy land, with the result that many of the orange groves of Calabria are now controlled by some of most powerful families in the Italian underworld: the Pesce, Piromalli and Mancuso clans.
“The mafia now governs the agro-industry,” Leonardo Palmisano, the anti-mafia author, told us. “You only need to look at the properties confiscated from the mafia. In recent years, they are almost all in the agricultural sector. And organised crime doesn’t just control agricultural production, but also transport, commercialisation and the fruit markets.”
Italy’s “Agromafia Observatory”, an organisation that analyses criminal incursions into the food chain, estimates that the value of food-related business to organised crime has risen 12.4% in the last year, making it now worth €24.5bn. The Observatory suggests that agriculture now makes up 15% of the mafias’ total income.
“You have to understand”, says Don Pino De Masi, the anti-mafia priest, “that in Calabria, the black economy is bigger than the real one. There are no workers’ rights. You take on who you can pay the least and the gangmaster oils this ‘race to the bottom’ mechanism. Above the immigrant gangmaster is the Calabrian one, the expression of the will of those who command here.”
Many activists believe this modern form of slavery is not a perversion of 21st-century capitalism, but the logical result of putting profit before every other consideration. “Unless you counter the huge power of the multinationals,” Yvan Sagnet told us, “it will be difficult to resolve the problem of working conditions. Because caporalato and modern slavery are the effect of a system, not the cause of it: the effect of ultraliberalism applied to agriculture.”
“This isn’t a comfortable message for supermarkets”, says Rachel Wilshaw, ethical trade manager at Oxfam, “but in squeezing their suppliers so hard commercially that they can only make a profit by exploiting workers, supermarkets themselves are driving the conditions that can result in modern slavery in their supply chain.”
Every year, before the harvest is in, certain supermarkets invite a supply price for their fresh produce. Because the order, for the winning bidder, will be very large, producers compete to outdo each other with the lowest price. This is the supermarkets’ “double-down” auction, infamous for reducing prices on all produce. After opening offers are called in, the lowest bid from that first round is then used as the starting point for this second round, hence “double down”.
A manufacturer of tomato products called Francesco Franzese explained, “To produce a tin of tomatoes certain expenses are out of your control: the price of tin, energy and water costs and so on. The only place you can squeeze savings are in labour costs. The only place. In accepting these industrial prices,” he said, “we’re actually selling the skin of the farm-workers.”
The result is that tomatoes, oranges and other agricultural produce are now sold with no relation to how much they cost from the ground up, but solely how little the super-powerful supermarkets are prepared to pay from the top down. Prices paid to tomato-processing companies, which turn the raw fruit into tins of tomatoes, concentrates, sauces and ketchups, are constantly forced down. Those processors, in turn, readjust the prices they pay to farmers, in order to maintain their profit margin. The price pressure is even more acute on tomatoes than on other products, because they are often used by supermarkets as a “loss leader”. Tomatoes are so fundamental to Italian cuisine that shops sell them at a loss knowing the customer will purchase other products while shopping and make up the difference. But the downward squeeze on prices is only part of the story of the supply chain, because it’s also apparent that someone, somewhere, is making huge profits. Although farmers were paid 7.5 cents per kg for their tomatoes last year, the consumer was charged, roughly, €2 per kg for them. That represents a price increase of 2,567%.
In that context, it is hardly surprising if corners are cut. Farmers use gangmasters to provide the cheapest, most vulnerable labour, and don’t ask questions about the workers’ conditions. “The farmers make up for diminishing margins”, Sagnet and Palmisano wrote, “through the gangmasters … everyone makes money on the ones below, except for the very last in the chain, the labourers.”
Discount supermarkets – the main perpetrators – now account for almost 20% of the Italian market, and in Germany (a major consumer of Italian produce) the figure is at 40%. Between 2014 and 2017, while the Italian economy has been stagnant, the major discount supermarkets have grown. The power of supermarkets is exacerbated in Italy by the producers’ relative weakness. In the Italian south, the average size of a farm is seven hectares. There is often little consolidation or cooperation between them, and they remain powerless compared to the national supermarket chains. There is also an almost total absence of employment agencies for the agricultural sector in Calabria and Puglia, to act as alternatives to gangmasters.
Activist Fabio Ciconte and journalist Stefano Liberti have been campaigning for a decade for a fairer food industry, and recently published a book: Big Trolley: Who Decides What We Eat? “The supermarkets,” they wrote, “have created a war between the poor: on the one side the farmers, who are struggling to survive, and on the other consumers, who want to spend less and less. If you need labourers quickly, there’s no efficient way to find them. That’s the intermediary role that caporali [gangmasters] provide.”
The continued use of slave labour in Italian agriculture has been made possible by a combination of factors: a migrant crisis in which hundreds of thousands of people with minimal rights have arrived in areas dominated by organised crime just as the country’s economy is flatlining and discount supermarkets are using all means possible to push down prices.