Millions of tons of tomatoes are produced every year in the south of Italy. To cut costs, many farmers hire the cheapest labour force possible – migrant workers – in a system that has many of the trappings of modern-day slavery. Workers are barely paid for hours of grueling labour and are forced to live in makeshift camps. Horrified by the omnipresent exploitation in the industry, a local association has started its own tomato production, where migrant workers are treated with dignity and humanity.
Gora is originally from Senegal. He spent one season harvesting tomatoes and living in the huge makeshift camp for migrant labourers in Rignago (like our Observer Ousmane Kassambara). Horrified by the conditions there, he joined an Italian organisation that offers an alternative, ethical model for agriculture.
"For the first time in my life, I was paid with dignity"
In 2016, I participated in my first tomato harvest. I was living in the makeshift camp in Rignano, where I met a filmmaker who was making a short film about the system of migrant farm labour in Italy. I actually appeared in his film, Santi Caporali, and it was through this experience that I learned about the Diritti a Sud association, which employs migrant workers to harvest tomatoes, but who treats them well and pays fairly.
In fact, Diritti a Sud is one of the co-founders of a project called SfruttaZero ["Zero exploitation" in Italian] that employs people ethically to harvest tomatoes in the Nardò region. In 2017, those working on SfruttaZero harvested 16,000 kilos of tomatoes, which were then used to make 13,000 bottles of tomato sauce (each containing 520 grams).
They added me to the WhatsApp group and, soon after, I got a contract to start working in the field for them. I was paid around 40 euros a day for six hours of labour. For the first time in my life, I was paid fairly.
I no longer work in the fields – I now live in the city of Parma where I found a job working in a factory. I am finally able to work as a mechanic, which I am trained to do. Many migrants like me have a profession, but are unable to exercise it here.
"The problem comes from large retailers”
Bastien Fillon, age 33, is a French citizen who is very involved with the SfruttaZero project.
I joined the association in 2015, which was its very first year. The aim was to construct an alternative to the current system of exploiting migrant workers, who are controlled by the caporalis [Editor’s note: middlemen between the farmers and labourers who often extort money from the workers]. Most labourers are forced to live in dirty, makeshift camps.
Each year, our association is growing. This year, for example, we were able to draft 21 contracts, which means that workers can also access unemployment benefits. We pay 7.19 euros per hour and not by the amount of tomatoes harvested, like the caporali.
The meant that we were able to employ five people, including two migrant workers, for four continuous months. We hired another 15 people just to help with the harvest.
We have a partnership with a local cooperative, where our tomatoes are turned into sauce. Our jars sell for 3 euros each in health food stores or fair trade shops. Our association also sells some. We practise organic agriculture and don’t use any chemical products, but we don’t currently have an organic certification.
We want to show that it is possible to produce tomato sauce in Italy while still respecting the workers. The problem comes from big retailers that sell jars of tomato sauce for 60 cents. That means that they impose ridiculously low purchasing prices, which forces farmers to pay the harvesters indecently low salaries.
In fact, Paola Guglielmi, the public prosecutors of the town of Lecce, cited large retailers Cirio and Mutti in her investigation into the death of Abdullah Mohammed, a migrant worker. This 47-year-old Sudanese national had a heart attack in July 2015 while harvesting tomatoes in the fields near Nardò.
The Italian tomato industry is the third largest producer in the world, and, in 2017, its revenue reached 3.2 billion euros.
There are between 400,000 and 430,000 undocumented migrant workers in Italy, according to the Italian Federation of Agricultural Workers (FLAI-CGIL). They are all extremely vulnerable, but a report by Bastamag states that at least 100,000 are trapped in situations of extreme exploitation.