In Depth

Italy’s slave labour problem

Human rights groups claim thousands of migrants are forced into agricultural labour

Migrants entering Italy from across the Mediterranean Sea are being coerced into forced labour jobs in multiple industries across the country, experts and human rights groups warn.

Political instability and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa have seen the number of migrants fleeing in search of a better life “growing exponentially in recent years”, peaking at 181,436 in 2016,  The Guardian says. Many of these migrants have obtained asylum in Italy, while others are undocumented.

Human rights organisations have sounded the alarm over the exploitative working conditions of migrants all over Italy. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre highlights the prevalence of “irregular employment, sub-minimum wages, excessively long working hours not compensated by overtime pay, lack of workplace health and safety, occupational diseases and no access to basic medical aid, shameful living and hygiene conditions”.

How many people are stuck in slavery?

The Global Slavery Index (GSI), an annual study published by the Walk Free Foundation, says that desperate migrants arriving in Italy who have had their asylum cases turned down become “susceptible to modern slavery due to corrupt recruitment intermediaries and limited government resources to deal with such an influx”. 

The spotlight is on the agricultural sector, which is concentrated mostly in the south of Italy – a multi-billion euro industry dependent on the sale of tomatoes, citrus fruits, olives and grapes across the globe. France24 reports that in order to cut costs, people who own large farms in the country often call on “the cheapest workforce possible: migrant workers”. These end up “ensnared in a system akin to modern slavery”.

The news site adds: “They live in makeshift camps where they are exploited by the intermediaries who liaise with the farmers. They are stuck doing gruelling, underpaid work... which is often their only option.”

The GSI estimates that there are around 50,000 enslaved agricultural workers in Italy, from a total of 145,000 people enslaved in the country as a whole. Last autumn the UN said that a further 400,000 agricultural workers in Italy are at risk of being exploited.

Yvan Sagnet, a 33-year-old antislavery activist from Cameroon who once worked on a slave-exploiting farm in Italy, told Time Magazine last year that upon his arrival in Italy, a mafia-connected boss told him he could make up to $33 (£26) a day filling crates with tomatoes.

“What he didn’t mention was that the cost of transportation to the fields would be deducted from his wages, along with his water and his food,” the magazine says.

Sagnet complained: “At the end of the day, I was making $4.50 (£3.55). It wasn’t work. It was slavery. But most people had no choice.”

Who controls the industry?

This illicit industry is mostly under the control of myriad mafia organisations in Italy, most of which are based in the south. The Guardian reports that in Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia and Sicily, where most migrants end up, the mafia runs “a parallel system of local rule with its own violent enforcement” that includes “very few and very corrupt” workplace inspectors.

The paper says that local farmers come to pick up points in trucks looking for “i neri” (“the blacks”) and “choosing the biggest and strongest for casual labour, harvesting tomatoes and citrus fruits”. It describes the scene as a “degrading display, made worse by the fact that their wages are “part of the illicit economy that makes up around 20% of Italy’s overall GDP”.

Is stopping migrants the answer?

Far-right Italian interior minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini, who takes a strong anti-immigration stance on most issues, has acknowledged the severity of the situation, calling immigrants the “new slaves”. But where he has pointed the finger of blame has stirred up some controversy.

Although Salvini has decried the mafia’s role in the country’s exploitative labour practices, he believes the fault lies with “out of control migration”, which he claims “helps the mafia”.

“If there were no migrants desperate to be exploited, it would be more difficult for them to do business,” he says, suggesting that stopping migration would put a stop to organised crime.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella, a political rival of Salvini’s, has denounced the comments as “irresponsible” and instead posited that “only cooperation can defeat this phenomenon, with a European Union aware of its values ​​and responsibilities”.

He says: "No country is immune from this systematic violation of human dignity and no one should feel the temptation to look away.” 

The governor of Puglia, Michele Emiliano, has also distanced himself from Salvini’s approach. He is calling on businesses in the region to “break the gangmaster system by only employing migrants legally”, CNN reports. The news agency says that farmers using gangmasters can have their land seized as a result of a tough anti-exploitation law passed in 2016. Those found to be hiring workers through gangmasters who exploit labourers can face up to eight years in prison.

It offers victims of labour exploitation the same protection and resources as those available to victims of sex trafficking, such as access to professional training opportunities.

Cheap goods

Contrary to Salvini’s unsympathetic take on the crisis, Sagnet believes the slave labour industry in Italy is mostly facilitated by the prevalence of ultra-cheap goods in Italian supermarkets and shops.

“The problem isn’t the mafia or the migrants. It’s the cost of cheap goods,” he told Time. “When retailers tell farmers they will only buy tomatoes for 8¢ a kilo, says Sagnet, the farmers can’t afford to pay normal wages. But if the stores charge more, customers will go somewhere else.”

The Guardian reports that 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”.

“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.”

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