Is there exploitation in your can of tomatoes?

A report has found that farm workers endure horrific conditions while harvesting tomatoes in southern Italy.

You might want to think twice before grabbing that can of Italian tomatoes off the supermarket shelf. A new investigation has found that farm laborers in southern Italy, where most of the country's huge, US$3.7 billion-a-year tomato industry is based, endure horrific conditions. Prosecutor Paola Gugliemi says that food companies Mutti and Conserve Italia are benefiting from "conditions of absolute exploitation."

Gugliemi spearheaded the in-depth investigation, which was triggered by the death of 47-year-old Abdullah Mohammed in July 2015. Mohammed was a legal migrant worker from Sudan and father of two, who suffered a heart attack while working in a tomato field in Nardó. It is believed that if his employer had allowed him to go to the hospital, Mohammed's life could have been saved.

The Guardian describes Mohammed's workday, which is typical of thousands of other farm workers:

"Muhammed’s day would start at 4am and he would work until 5pm handpicking tomatoes in the fierce heat of the southern Italian summer. Labour abuses listed in the court documents include working for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, without breaks, with minimal pay and no access to medical staff... While workers make an average of €30 (US$35) a day in the Puglia region, they can expect to lose up to half of that just to pay for food, transport, water and a cut to their gangmaster."

The gangmaster system, called 'caporalato' in Italian, is a big part of the problem. Migrants, both legal and illegal, are divided into informal work groups that are hired by Italian landowners to tend and harvest crops. The gangmasters keep their workers in horrific conditions, described by one worker as "ghettos that were like concentration camps," and force the workers to pay for any extra needs, such as a trip to the hospital. Despite legal efforts to crack down on the system, there are still many rural farming communities where it continues.

Italian police know that fighting the caporalato system needs to be a joint effort. At the time of Mohammed's death, Il Giornale di Puglia reported:

"This is a battle that, in order to be won, must be fought collectively, involving the entire supply chain, otherwise we'll never do it."

When confronted with Guglielmi's findings, however, the tomato companies claimed innocence. Conserve Italia says it's "not our responsibility to verify what happens in the region but we do ask our suppliers to respect human rights," while Mutti cites contracts involving "specific requirements on work conditions (salary regularity as well as security in the workplace)." Either way, it's vague.

The Guardian says British supermarket representatives are hopeful the Italian government will conduct a full investigation in order to build on what Gugliemi has found thus far. Indeed, it would be wise, since shoppers may be less inclined to buy tomatoes that leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

Tags: Agriculture | Farming | Fruits & Vegetables | Italy | Tomatoes

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