By Sara Meli, MA candidate at the School of Labour Studies, McMaster University
January 4th, 2022
According to the Slavery Convention 1926, Article 1: “Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attachttps://gflc.ca/wp-admin/profile.phphing to the right of ownership are exercised.” Although the labourers in southern Italy’s tomato industry experience unfreedom due to a higher power controlling them, those in control do not own them. The term “modern slavery” is used to define contemporary forms of exploitation and it is defined by the Global Slavery Index 2016 as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal.” This term attempts to capture a range of legal harms, such as forced labour, which the International Labour Organization defines as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
A recent article in The Guardian claims that Southern Italy’s tomato pickers experience modern slavery through the threat of being reported as an illegal immigrant, racially motivated violence, filthy living conditions, organized crime abusing their power on the basis that the law does not protect many migrant labourers, and extremely low wages for long hours of labour-intensive work.
Modern slavery in the tomato industry is modern due to the labourers’ enslavement through intimidation, not imprisonment. In most cases, intimidation is experienced by racialized migrant labourers. Although racism exists independent of migration, “migration and race often appear as proxies for each other,” where the mafia groups in charge of the migrant labourers often use race to motivate their attacks and threats (2). Additionally, the mafia may use the racialization of migrants to legitimize their use of unfree labour (3). Migrant labourers' desperation for work and fear of deportation adds an extra element of control that organized crime exercises, making it easier to force the labourers to comply with their strenuous demands.
Organized crime controls more than just tomato production. After the Italian government contracted out the housing and feeding of migrant labourers to reception centres, organized crime took over and began managing many of the centres. Ironically, a place where migrant labourers seek refuge was taken over by organized crime, making these centres’ conditions unsafe. The agricultural labourers in one centre were being served small portions of out-of-date food, while the “Arena” mafia family, associated with the local Catholic charity officially running the centre, embezzled over 33 million euros that the state designated to the centre.
It is evident through the mafia’s control over both tomato picking and migrant housing that these labourers are dispossessed from their means of subsistence and prevented from exercising the basic freedoms one should have in a capitalist society based on a free market (4). In this way, modern slavery can be considered a deviation from the free market or a market failure (5). Additionally, it can also be argued that modern slavery is a distinct product of neoliberal capitalism. Since globalization increases the competitive pressures in corporations, capitalism has a tendency towards the exclusion and exploitation of “others” for cheap labour, aware that many marginalized groups may have few alternative work options (6).
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister from June 2018 to September 2019, repeatedly labelled African immigrants as “new slaves” and felt migrant labourers were not the victims, but the Italian citizens were since “immigrants commit crimes.” Once Salvini came to power, he implemented severe measures on illegal immigration through public governance, deploying the coercive power of the state (7). As a result, the state repressed asylum requests to prevent illegal immigration. However, Salvini’s actions backfired, resulting in migrants being denied asylum to relocate to hidden agricultural slums in Italy.
These migrants, still desperate for work, often get involved in a system called caporalato, an organized crime labour intermediary that subcontracts cheap migrant labour to a farmer or landowner. Caporalato is a form of intermediation that has been illegal since 2016 as it violates minimum wage requirements and reinforces inhumane working conditions. However, after the state decided to decline most asylum requests, it became easy for gangmasters to recruit the desperate migrants left behind into caporalato, where gangmasters profit from labourers paid by piece-work, which is illegal in agriculture. It is difficult to determine liability when intermediaries are involved, as the landowner technically does not employ the labourers working illegally, because they are sub-contracted (8).
Illegal operations, like caporalato, that are not protected by government regulation, links recruitment practices to modern slavery (9). Although Salvini meant to deter migrant agricultural labourers from entering Italy through public statements that they are the “new slaves” and turning down almost 60% of asylum requests, Salvini perpetuated their experience of segregation even further and exacerbated their exploitation through illegal avenues.
The FLAI-CGIL union representing agricultural labourers stated, “where the mafia runs a parallel system of local rule with its own violent enforcement, the law holds little sway.” This connects to Southern Italy’s tomato industry, where public governance initiatives, such as Italy’s law against caporalato, are not working. However, social governance initiatives, such as advocacy campaigns and worker mobilization, have proven to contribute to positive change towards denouncing organized crime’s illegal labour practices (10). For example, Yvan Sagnet, an African migrant tomato picker, became a strike leader upon hearing that the field he worked on was undergoing a sudden change in work conditions that made the work more onerous. Although organizing a strike against the mafia is very risky and can result in death, Sagnet was able to denounce the field’s gangmasters to police, which opened Italy’s eyes to the reality of tomato pickers’ exploitation. Additionally, Sagnet created the first ethical anti-gangmaster label standing against caporalato, named No Cap, to certify ethical products through accurate auditing and on-site inspection.
If enough consumers purchase ethically, they can strengthen companies’ power to reduce modern slavery in the tomato supply chain (11). However, it is not always received well when farmers take a stand against the mafia’s illicit practices as they commonly suffer vandalization and damage to their farm from the mafia, making it difficult for them to set a good example.
Organized crime adds an extra barrier of control that is difficult to overcome in southern Italy’s tomato industry. Therefore, it is important to recognize that modern slavery on the tomato fields will not be solved by austerity measures implemented by a government attempting to deter migrant labourers. Through the power of public governance, Italy must reduce their strict measures on migrants gaining legal status to deter migrants from working in Italy illegally. However, until more migrant labourers can work legally, there must be initiatives to give labourers the agency to stand up for their rights and denounce gangmasters to police, as organized crime is the primary reinforcer of modern slavery on southern Italy’s tomato fields.
(1) Donaghey, J., et al., “From Employment Relations to Consumption Relations: Balancing Labor Governance in Global Supply Chains,” Human Resource Management 53, 2 (2013). (2) Carstensen, L., “Unfree Labour, Migration and Racism: Towards an Analytical Framework,” Global Labour Journal 12, 1 (2021). (3) Carstensen, “Unfree Labour, Migration and Racism: Towards an Analytical Framework” (4) Vandergeest, P. & Marschke, M., “Modern Slavery and Freedom: Exploring Contradictions through Labour Scandals in the Thai Fisheries,” Antipode 52, 1 (2019). (5) Fudge, J., “(Re)Conceptualising Unfree Labour: Local Labour Control Regimes and Constraints on Workers’ Freedoms,” Global Labour Journal 10, 2 (2019). (6) Andrijasevic, R., “Forced Labour In Supply Chains: Rolling Back The Debate On Gender, Migration And Sexual Commerce,” European Journal of Women’s Studies 28, 4 (2021). (7) Anner, M., “Three Labour Governance Mechanisms For Addressing Decent Work Deficits In Global Value Chains,” International Labour Review 160, 4 (2021). (8) Barrientos, S. W., “‘Labour Chains’: Analysing the Role of Labour Contractors in Global Production Networks,” The Journal of Development Studies 49, 8 (2013). (9) Mieres, F., “Migration, Recruitment and Forced Labour in a Globalising World,” in Handbook of Migration and Globalisation, ed. Triandafyllidou, A. (Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018). (10) Anner, “Three Labour Governance Mechanisms For Addressing Decent Work Deficits In Global Value Chains.” (11) Feasely, A. “Eliminating Corporate Exploitation: Examining Accountability Regimes as means to Eradicate Forced Labor from Supply Chains,” Journal of Human Trafficking 2, 1 (2016).
This project is supported by the LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli chair in Global Labour Issues at McMaster University, held by Judy Fudge, and by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.