Slave labor and unethical practices in Italy's agriculture, in particular for the imported products you might be buying

Italy has an enormous problem with unethical practices and slave labor issues in its food supply. While many people living in Italy have the opportunity to buy a great deal of their food from known suppliers and family farmers, or even raising it themselves, the commercial producers – many of whom are large exporters or steady suppliers to Italian restaurants – engage in unethical practices regarding their workforce, especially involving the exploitation of migrant workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are legally living in Italy. However, because their skin-color (most are African) and lesser-language skills, plus being kept in poverty, these workers have few resources to fight their exploitation and have their health protected. Doctors have judged their living conditions to be abysmal and – ironically, tragically – many who are producing the world’s favorite foods are themselves undernourished.

Italy needs more encouragement to enforce existing laws against exploitation and to speed up government certification for those ethical farms who have been requesting it. Italy needs support from abroad and visiting tourists to only purchase food products that have been harvested according to ethical practice. Right now, the Italian government is not treating this as a priority and it is hard for consumers and visitors to know which products and restaurants abide by ethical practice, and which do not.

Eating “local” when you are visiting Italy is probably the biggest contribution you can make. That means eating very local recipes, eating in restaurants that specialize in very local dishes. Any time food is transported long distances within Italy – whether it is mozzarella for your pizza in Venice or seafood when you can’t smell the sea from where you are – the risks that the chain of suppliers is exploiting its laborers to provide you with that food increases.

This is also the case if you are buying imported foods from Italy. It would help greatly if people began by taking an interest, asking questions when you shop at Eataly, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or your local Italian deli. Just take an interest, discuss the problem, don’t help in covering it up. As movements arise to insist on ethically produced food and labels on packaging begin to change, lend support with your dollars and euros where you can.

The people doing back breaking labor to provide us with our food, especially our luxury food, deserve to live decently. I hope tourists and “foodies” alike who love Italy and who love the food of Italy will take responsiblity for paying the true price of what we consume. Hope everybody agrees and will join in whatever way you can to promote and support ethical certification for food produced in Italy.

It’s not a problem confined to Italy.

The UK has serious problems with gangmasters often breaking the law in relation to legal and illegal migrant working . It is not juts payments less than the minimum wage, nor unsafe working conditions but the conditions in which workers have to live mean that the use of the word “slavery” is not inaccurate. For example, these three successful prosecutions in 1914 (information take from The Guardian online).

"March: Martyn Slender deliberately destroyed payslips to enable him to underpay his workers. He received a suspended prison sentence. Peterborough magistrates’ court was told that, in one instance, a Latvian worker got just £151 for five 10-hour days, which worked out at less than half the national minimum wage. In another example cited a worker was employed by Slender Contracting, of March, Cambridgeshire, for 20 hours over two days, but after deductions from his pay packet he was shown to be in debt.

May: Rimantas Sulcas illegally supplied workers to a number of Scottish vegetable farms and paid them wages below the legal minimum. He was ordered to do 180 hours unpaid community work. Sulcas had no GLA licence and paid his employees at a rate below the legal minimum wage.

October: A Romanian migrant, Gheorge Ionas, was fined £500 for forcing Armagh apple pickers to endure “extreme exploitation”, in inhumane conditions, in Northern Ireland while operating illegally. He kept Romanian migrants in an unheated outbuilding and forced them to scavenge for out-of-date food from supermarket bins."

Indeed. The United States has had a massive problem with this as well.

I was inspired to this post about Italy in particular because of the newly released doctors’ report. But also I would like to underscore that in recent years, Italy – especially Eataly – has promoted an image of Italian food abroad that is all about artisinal products, family farms, and the health-giving benefits of Italian foods. It has been made to seem a “purer” way, closer to nature and old-fashioned methods. Not all of this is malarkey, but a really vast amount of the food being exported is coming through the dirty hands of people engaged in criminal practice. Some of this criminal practice is old-fashioned organized crime, which still has such a grip in southern Italy. Some of it is new greed, as the demand for Italian food and wine products grows by leaps and bounds abroad.

All of it thrives so long as there is a lack of awareness from consumers. I was very impressed by how quickly environment-minded consumers “punished” VW for unethical practice with regard to emissions standards. Many people buying Italian imports are specifically doing so in response to marketing about the “goodness” of the mediterranean diet and their belief that Italians have better agricultural practice than other countries.

Italy in many ways can and should be a model for other nations for its agricultural practices. But it needs to address this problem, and it has been sweeping it out of sight in favor of a prettier picture that isn’t the whole picture.

1914 or 2014?

One of the things to know about Italy is that in the early 20th century, it was not foreign “migrants” from Africa who were exploited on Italy’s farms, but Italians themselves, in particular Italians living in southern Italy who were forced – truly forced – to migrate north seasonally to work in agribusiness in Emilia-Romagna, Piemonte, the Veneto. Many of these workers were women and children who were also sexually exploited in the process. Another “dirty” secret of Italy is how much the emigration to the US was in response to some very terrible exploitation of southern Italians by their northern “compatriots.”

Impoverished Italians in the south will no longer put up with that treatment. If they don’t migrate out of Italy, however, they get social welfare support in exchange for their votes. So it has become “necessary” to import starving people from further south who have little other recourse in the world if they want to avoid starvation.

The article that I posted only looked at practices in southern Italy, but similar studies coming up with the same results could be done for the agricultural belts of the north, including some of the richest wine producing regions. In far northern Italy, it is Polish and other European migrants who seasonally pick the apples or help produce the cheese. But being white and EU citizens, they fare somewhat better than migrants in the rest of Italy.

Holy Terroir, I agree with most of what you wrote, but the inhabitants of the Mezzogiorno were also subjected to dire exploitation by the landed élites in their own sunny regions. The holders of the latifondi, like their counterparts in Spain and many regions of Latin America, cruelly exploited their tenant farmers and had enforcers to quell any protest. Among these were the “men of honour” of the Mafia, Camorra and 'Ndrangeta.

There was significant emigration from Northern and Central Italy as well, but much of it went to Argentina and Brazil (in the US, California was also a destination for northerners).

Yes, there has been cruel exploitation of migrants from the global South in many countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere; we’ve all seen the trucks found full of dead migrants. It is true that the strong presence of organized crime in Italy exacerbates this problem and others including fraud and cover-ups of unhealthy and unethical agricultural and processing methods.

It is true that this exists alongside exemplary local (and more or less organic) farming and processing. The Italian associations promoting these were sometimes also protesting the debasement of their own famous food quality by unscrupulous producers and processors.

Absolutely agreed.

Yes, but I think often for different reasons – like the collapse of textile industries and mining in the north.

Yes, overall I wish Italy was more imitated by other countries than less, and there are many very honorable farmers/producers in Italy, some of whom are demanding from Rome the certifications for which they have applied and are backlogged. It seems within reach for Italy to dig in and solve some of its most egregious problems in agriculture. Some of it seems to be inertia, and pervasive corruption in Rome. I don’t want to create the impression the problems are simple, however. But I do think consumers of Italian products can play a positive role. Right now, there is too much unawareness that these difficulties exist among people who would act and make good choices if they were made aware of the situation.

I’m afraid it’s a mistake I often make. In my current life I am a military historian with a particular interest in the Great War and my head spends a lot of time 100 years ago… Expect me to continue to make such mistakes up to any reference to 2018.


Thanks. The main reason I asked was because the abuse of agricultural workers is a problem of such longstanding in Italy that I thought perhaps you were trying to point out how long it had also been going on elsewhere in the world.

I only wish all stories like that were from 1914 and that the problem had been addressed long ago and eliminated.

the situation is a lot more complicated.

first, ask yourself “Why do these people put up with it?”
the obvious answer is “they can’t complain for fear of xxxx”

next question is “Why the fear of xxxx?”
usually because the affected persons are not “legally” in residence. arrest, deportation, whatever-and-you-name-it kinds of fear.

which begets the question “How did they get here?”
and then you hit the political hot-potato of “securing our borders”

there are countries that do not have this issue. they don’t have “minimum” wage laws, and at every street corner someone is demanding “papers! please” there are no “rights” there is no “due process” - get caught there and it’s very unpleasant curtains.

which, btw, explains why such places have so little problem - people just don’t go there because they the people know the consequences far outweigh any possible benefits. better to go someplace where anything goes and the “consequences” are more acceptable.

the problem is not limited to agriculture. I can cruise the local downtown city corner for “day labor” - dollars per day, no questions asked, no questions answered.

the legitimization of such “under class” labor is not so pretty either. Germany has a whole monstrous program for Gastarbeiter = “guest workers.” Germans are so well educated and so well prosperous that the birth rate has seriously declined - sex equality is such that many females choose an outside the house career vs. children - and all the Germans are far to educated to do menial work. so “guest workers” take care of the trash, sweep the street, etc. they are deemed and treated as the lowest caste in India - abhorrently.

so, which “problem” would one care to “fix?”

the sub-root cause of nations in poverty?
the root cause people are fleeing to someplace else for a better life?
the cause that less povertious nations have porous borders?
or the fact that laws about minimum wage do not exist where they do?
the itty bitty issue that minimum wage laws - where existing - are not enforced?
or the not itty bitty issue that should some poor sap report the abuse, they wind up on the shortest end of the stick?

one can address the cause, or one can invent/fund yet more ban-aids.

so far I can observe, there is no attempt by any “world leaders” to actually work on / solve the real issue. they all apparently only own stock in the ban-aid suppliers.

If you read the article link, you will see that it concerns workers LEGALLY inside Italy, as I also said in my post.

The rest of your post follows from that incorrect assumption that we are discussing illegal immigrants (we are not), so I see no point in commenting on it.

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Many Western countries rely on legal immigrants to perform the tasks their citizens think are beneath them. The citizens collect welfare, because there are no jobs, and the immigrants do hard labour for less than minimum wage.

Agreed. Situation is generally the same in the UK - as in the two cases I mentioned upthread, where nationality is mentioned, those workers would legally be here as nationals from other European Union countries. Of course we do have illegal immigration but this does not seem to particularly impact on agriculture, the illegals “disappearing” into the general economy.

Is there any way to distinguish those Italian products using slave labour? Any label? For consumers it’s not easy to trace all these. Several years ago, they discovered that Coca Cola Fanta bought the orange juice from farms that has used exploited labour.

I’m trying to find out for exported foods. The huge chain of Co-Op supermarkets in Italy started out as a true co-operative, and they have for years been doing labeling regarding transfats, point of origin, organic, etc. Their chief executive has been interviewed saying that their private label “branded” products will carry a guarantee of compliance with ethical labor practice. But I don’t think Co-Op exports its label or has stores outside of Italy. It would be interesting to know if Eataly takes an interest in this. (I’m nowhere near one.)

The article mentions that over 600 food producers in Italy have applied to the national government for a “certification” of ethical practice-- meaning that they are inviting the government to inspect them and publicly certify they are doing the right thing by their workforce. Presumably this is something you would boast about on a label, like having a earned a government certification for meeting all the internationally recognized standards of “organic.” But Rome has only gotten around to processing less than half of the applications sent to them.

All over Italy it has been common for years to see labels on some products that say: “This was produced on land liberated from the Mafia.” I make a point of buying the products when I see them, even when they are not as premium products. Similar labeling for ethical practice would probably inspire similar loyalty.

This organisation in the UK called the Ethical Trading Initiative wants retailers/supermarkets to take responsibility for making sure their supply chain is ethical and “clean” from farm to store. I didn’t realize it when I started this thread, but apparently tomorrow, Dec 18, is International Migrants Day, so the website of the Ethical Trading initiative is drawing attention to one big aspect of their plight by featuring the personal story of a tomato field worker in Italy:

But I don’t think you can put it all on supermarkets and consumers. We do need Italian or EU government certification to reassure consumers that supermarkets corporations aren’t just jumping on the bandwagon with false advertising.

Also, while I realize some people very interested in food really don’t want to do this, I think we would have far less labor exploitation in farming if consumers made it a priority to consume locally grown products rather than imported products. What that means, of course, that if you are no longer buying canned Italian tomatoes and you don’t live in a tomato-growing environment year round, then you won’t be cooking dishes made with tomato sauce out of local season. But you will be cooking recipes made with ingredients from a short-supply chain over which it is possible, I think, to monitor more closely and regulate democratically.

But if people are going to continue to eat Italian food even though they live in Canada, Germany or Scotland, then they have a responsibility, I think, to demand that retailers and government certify that workers aren’t being treated inhumanely just to keep tomato sauce affordable year round.

Consumers are stuck with paying costs of long-distance transport for imported goods, but in order to keep prices competitive, producers threaten and abuse wokers into working for literally nothing. Obviously the farmer down the road can abuse his workers too. But the far away export producer can do it more easily without having the abuse uncovered or regulated from abroad.

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And they also refuse the work because it doesn’t pay a living wage for full time work.

and the politicians who provide it get their votes. Many immigrants never get citizenship, and therefore are unable to vote, it’s a hard nut to crack, especially in Italy because so much of the unethical practice regarding immigrants and farm labor is entangled with long-established organized crime, with its own political tentacles and habits of – shall we say – undemocratic intimidation of government officials and ethical citizens who work against them.

so quite frankly it appears the solution is completely in hand.

just make the bad actors obey the law. what does one need? a new law that says the old law should be obeyed?

if the exploited have nothing to “fear” why have they not reported the abusers?
it goes back to the argument in tipping - wait staff that have to take money out of their pocket at the end of the shift to . . . something. it’s unclear what. why are you working some place that requires you to pay to work?

the legal immigrants may be ignorant of the law. the solution is to educate them.
aside from that, as Sherlock was wont to say: after all the impossible reasons have been eliminated, whatever remains must be the truth. they are afraid of something.

it’s just not so simple as “we need new laws” - nor is enforcing every law on every field on the planet even remotely practical.

as to labeling - right. the purveyor is certainly willing to entertain the idea of putting “this product harvested / made with slave labor.”

and exactly where have these illustrious “doctors” been for the last two centuries?

No one suggested they were not afraid of many things. People just pointed out they were not illegally in Italy. There are reasons other than fear however why abuse is not reported – including, as you point out, that authorities do not respond to complaints.

But before I go on with this may I ask: Did you bother to read the article? Because it doesn’t appear you did or bothered to read the posts either.

yes I did. thanks so much for your consideration and tolerance of thread drift.

Your posts don’t look anything like “thread drift”. Don’t know where that is coming from either. If you want to change the subject, or riff on it, drift on it, fine with me. Carry on.

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Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, Yuanyang County, Yunnan
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