Workers in Italy’s tomato industry are organising against exploitation and poor working conditions in one of the country’s most important sectors. Migrant workers find themselves at the sharp end of industry abuses, which local government has continually failed to tackle and anti-slavery legislation proves wildly insufficient to prevent.
On 25th August, some 400 migrant farm workers totally blockaded two of the largest tomato processing factories in Europe, located in the industrial hub in the outskirts of the city of Foggia, in Puglia, southern Italy. They brought processing and logistics operations to a halt for more than six hours, The strike was the culmination of a year’s cycle of struggles, and was directed against the processing plants of Futuragri S.C.A. and Princes Industrie Alimentari S.r.L. The latter is a subsidiary of the multinational food giant Princes Ltd., owned since 1989 by the Mitsubishi Group and based in Liverpool, UK. Many of the 300 lorry drivers affected by the blockade also joined the farm workers in protesting against their employers, who force them to wait unpaid outside the factory for up to 24 hours.
The farm workers and their allies are still in contention with management over two principle demands. Aside from demanding the implementation of contracts that conform to the legal standards for the sector, they also demand the regularisation of the immigration status of non-EU workers; making it legal for them to live and work within the country. This latter demand would be key to achieving the former for all workers, irrespective of nationality. Without regular immigration status the workers have no possibility of entering a regular work contract. In fact, as a result of demonstrations held over this year, the farm workers have succeeded in calling for an official meeting with representatives from the government and the local chief of police (who is responsible for matters relating to immigration), where they were able to negotiate the removal of some of the more arbitrary obstacles to renewing their leave to remain. They even succeeded in obtaining an amnesty for a small number of undocumented workers.
The blockade of last August represents an enormous success for the farm workers, as industry conditions make organising against exploitation is very difficult. Employees live and work in appalling conditions; deaths from work-induced exhaustion are not unheard of; illegal labour is the norm; workers are divided by language barriers and along lines based on nationality/race, as well as by the (illegal) gang masters who often control their access to work and other aspects of their lives. What is more, identifying responsibility for these conditions of exploitation is far from straightforward. Most workers do not know who their real employers are, as they are hired by intermediaries. Furthermore, given the extremely low prices paid by the big processing businesses and supermarkets, the land owners and farmers actually have little leeway in terms of what they can give their labourers. Local, national and EU authorities, the various (mostly small or medium-sized) producers and land owners and the gang-masters, all have their part to play in reproducing the mechanisms of exploitation. However, at the heart of it are the processing industries, the food giants which transform the tomatoes into canned products and ship them to our supermarkets. By targeting processing industries, the farm workers’ struggle in Foggia has started to trace this chain of responsibility, and in doing so they are helping us to understand what goes into making the food that we eat.
Precisely because the vast majority of farming, in this as in most other parts of Italy, is carried out through the exploitation of irregular labour, it is difficult to know exactly how many people are working in agriculture as wage labourers. According to official data on regular employment – employment whose terms are set, at least in theory, by legally binding work contracts – migrant farm workers in the province of Foggia amount to over 20,000. Tomato farming alone officially employs more than 5,500 workers – again, not counting their peers whose legal employment status is less above-board. Puglia is an important agro-industrial district. Aside from being a world-leading producer of processed tomatoes, (a highly labour intensive industry), it is also famous for wheat and other products. Migrant farm workers are employed all year round in the farming of a range of other crops, from vegetables to grapes. Conservative estimates rate totally irregular labour at 25% of the whole workforce, but even when contracts are formally granted their provisions are very often violated.
According to Italian law, all agricultural workers should have a regulated contract with a minimum wage which varies by province: in Foggia, this should amount to about 8 euros per hour. However, most workers earn salaries that amount to half the minimum wage and work way above the established hours. The vast majority are paid by piece-rate. A 300kg crate of tomatoes is usually worth between 2.50 and 5 euros, rates so low that workers are forced to work to the point of exhaustion. As a result of their poor income, they are forced to live in makeshift ‘ghettos’ without running water or electricity. If they rely on intermediaries to be hired they must to pay 5 euros to get to work and back every day, whilst in fact both transport and board should, according to the collective agreements established by government and trade unions, be provided for by employers. In some cases, gang-masters also demand a percentage of workers’ salaries.
In the peak of the harvest season, the shantytowns, known as “ghettos” can reach up to 2,000 inhabitants. These “ghettos” have become an embarrassment for the regional and national administrations, a source of endless debate which has yet to produce constructive solutions. This is in no small part because the political response has cast the situation in terms of a humanitarian crisis, thus obscuring entirely the root material causes that create such living conditions. The “solutions” proposed by the authorities are always the same; to bulldoze the shanty-towns and replace them with controlled camps, effectively humanitarian aid camps. This was the measure that was taken in San Ferdinando, not far from Puglia, close to Rosarno in the region of Calabria, where a camp made of tents was erected to house the seasonal workers employed in the orange harvest following a riot of the labourers in 2010. The camp over time was neglected by the local authority, whilst more and more migrant workers arrived. As conditions worsened, it became essentially another makeshift shanty-town. Last June, one of the inhabitants of this camp-turned-ghetto was shot and killed by Italian police following an altercation, provoking protests from inhabitants and activists. The reaction of the authorities was to call for the eviction of the camp, something they had been threatening for years. As of yet no action has been taken and the conditions remain the same.
In the past, farming was one of the main sources of work for the local population, and during the late 19th century this region, like many other parts of Italy, saw a wave of important mobilisations by agricultural day labourers. An unsuccessful attempt at agrarian reform, mass emigration, and consecutive waves of immigration, led to a situation where, today, the supply of the workforce for farming is provided almost entirely by seasonal migrant labour. Whilst mainstream media attention has focused almost entirely on the sub-saharan African sector of the workforce and on their large shantytown settlements, the majority of farm labourers are in fact from Eastern Europe. Many Bulgarians and, above all, Romanians (who represent over half the official migrant farm-worker population in the district of Foggia) arrive in spring and leave in autumn. Methods of recruitment and organisation, as well as living conditions, vary significantly. There is often a kind of hierarchy based on previous experience and access to local contacts, with the newly-arrived being most vulnerable to abusive methods of control and exploitation. Stories of workers being kept in segregation, unfed and without payment keep emerging. The plight of women is particularly dire, since they, as the Italian women workers before them, are subjected to various forms of sexual harassment, which in the vast majority of cases go undetected. Sexual labour and forms of care work for male farm labourers are common place, often carried out by migrant women and transpeople.
Whilst European workers do not have problems relating to immigration status, they still encounter many obstacles in gaining access to basic services (such as healthcare and education for their children), as local councils often refuse to register them as resident with no explanation. Non-EU workers, on the other hand, in the majority of cases find themselves in a liminal situation in terms of their immigration status. In recent years, people arriving in Italy over the Mediterranean have swelled the ranks of the reserve army of farm labourers. Some have been granted some form of international protection, and many others not, whilst a large number are still waiting for a decision on their asylum claim as waiting times has increased drastically. Many workers have passed through, or still live in, the refugee reception camps. One of these camps, currently hosting around 1,300 asylum seekers despite having a capacity of just 500, is conveniently located in the district of Foggia, and has for many years been spilling over into another shantytown right outside the perimeter fence.
Despite the fact that the majority of non-EU farm labourers have some sort of temporary right to stay, pending the evaluation of their case, large numbers of people (well into the thousands) have no legal status whatsoever. The level of tolerance by the Italian state towards their presence in the country is striking. It suggests an implicit understanding that these workers are necessary for the local agricultural industries. And yet, whilst the authorities do not make attempts to remove people from the territory, barring a few exceptions, they also do not seek ways to regularise their stay, preferring to consign large numbers of workers to a position of legal precarity – and thus effectively consenting to their exploitation by means of illegal employment. This is why the fight for residence documents forms the basis of the fight for dignified working conditions.
The agricultural sector is of great importance to the Italian economy, and Italy is the lead producer of peeled tomatoes in the world. Overall, the tomato industry in Italy is worth more than 3 billion Euros a year, with the district of Foggia farming just under half the total amount of processed tomatoes in the country. Little wonder tomatoes have acquired the nickname of ‘Italy’s red gold’. The Princes plant alone, the largest of its kind in Europe, processes around 40% of all the tomatoes farmed in Foggia, and exports all over the world, though mainly to the UK.
Since 2015, British legislation has required all companies that operate with a global yearly revenue of £36 million to produce an annual declaration in which they list the measures undertaken to identify and eradicate forms of modern slavery within their own company and along their entire supply chain. On 23rd August 2016, Princes published its annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement, in compliance with UK legislation, stating that it had taken the necessary controls to ensure that forms of slavery or human trafficking were not being practiced anywhere in its supply chain. With one simple document, then, it absolves itself from any guilt over the nature of the labour it uses in its production. The document is clear evidence of the problematic nature of concepts such as human slavery and trafficking, concepts that are essentially premised on a distinction between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ capitalism, drawing a line between ‘normal’ exploitation and slavery that allows a whole range of practices of exploitation to be tolerated. The forms of heavy exploitation to which the overwhelming majority of workers in the farming industry are subjected cannot be equated to slavery or trafficking and are not subject to these controls. These forms of exploitation are entirely obscured by the narrowness of parameters such as modern slavery. Yet despite this, a gross disparity between word and practice is evident. In its statement Princes claims that is doesn’t work with suppliers that violate labour regulations. Considering that the living and working conditions of those who harvest and transport the tomatoes to their plant are well known in the region, and that in any case the practices of exploitation are so widespread in the area, it is difficult to believe that Princes’ subsidiary, Princes Industrie Alimentari S.r.l, could be unaware of the behaviour of it suppliers. Clearly, the legal requirement for companies to divest from slavery would not not enough to prevent dire exploitation and abuse, even if it were to be entirely enforced. It’s safe to say that the declaration isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Thanks to the blockade, workers have obtained written assurance that the National Association of Canning Industries (ANICAV) will participate in a multilateral meeting along with distributors’ and farmers’ associations, where workers will demand the enforcement of labour agreements throughout the supply chain. They also obtained a meeting with the chief of police, in order to discuss the regularisation of their immigration status, which was nominally agreed to months ago, but which has not yet been put into practice. Decisions of this magnitude in fact rest with the Italian government, which, despite the many policy measures and proposals issued on the subject of eradicating farm-labour exploitation, has so far refused outright to address the growing calls for an amnesty for irregular migrant workers. In order to step up the pressure, a national demonstration directed at the Italian national government is being in the autumn.
The story of these farm workers’ struggle serves to illustrate the underlying complexities of the so-called migrant crisis, revealing the way in which illegal and legal migrant labour is systematically exploited by a capitalist system which is, in fact, dependent on it. It also demonstrates the illusionary nature of our borders: the repression against illegal migrants in places like Ventimiglia on the border with France, or on the coast of Italy, where the full force of Europe’s repressive organs is amassed, can be contrasted with the situation in Puglia where the presence of thousands of illegal migrants is effectively tolerated by the authorities because they carry out necessary work for a pittance. The workers in the tomato fields have travelled great distances and crossed borders to seek out a better living, and yet their living and working conditions in Italy are often no better than the living and working conditions they suffered in their homes. There is an overwhelming sense that they have in some way been brought or are kept there to serve a purpose. Yet it is also true that the presence of a vast and invisible Eastern European workforce, nominally entitled to work regularly, and of a large and growing mass of precarious Italian workers, shows how the function of immigration laws in lowering the value of wages might have exhausted its purpose. This process is aided by EU enlargement policies and by the Europe-wide programme of austerity that has constituted an outright assault on the welfare systems and social rights of European states. In all cases, however, the misery of the workers, the constant reproduction and enforcement of exploitation, serves to make sure that the food giants can continue to make profit in a time of crisis, to bring us our low-cost tinned tomatoes.
For more information on ‘Comitato Lavoratori delle Campagne’ see: http://campagneinlotta.org/chi-siamo/?lang=en
Photo: Wikimedia Commons