Human Stories

Tomatoes in Italy: The Social Cost of Production

Tomatoes are a staple ingredient in many homes across Europe, but the story of how they reach your plate may surprise you.  

This is a dark story of the invisible people who pick our tomatoes in Italy, but the story parallels many of the other fruits and vegetables we love and eat today, and many of the countries that proudly grow them.1,2,3 The story opens with a rather cheap and affordable tomato sauce tin sitting on a supermarket shelf. It took kilos of tomatoes to make it, countless hands to harvest and process it, and yet the final product is very cheap – perhaps costing even less than 1 euro. But how is that possible?

The problem with cheap tomatoes 

In Italy, tomatoes and tomato sauces are cheap because the retailers buy them for a very cheap price from farmers, and/or the companies that processed the tomatoes and packaged them. They are cheap because retailers have most of the negotiating power and very often get to decide their own buying price. Some retailers, for example, buy their products from “reverse” auctions.  First, retailers launch an auction for a stock of products, let’s say two tonnes of tomatoes. Then, every farmer or supplier who is interested in selling two tonnes of tomatoes to the retailer will try to pitch the cheapest selling price.4 It’s basically a battle for who gets paid the least: the producer who manages to pitch the cheapest price, wins.

The competitive incentive for cheapest production possible pushes farmers to cut costs across all areas of production, but especially labour.

If we take a further step back in the process, we find the packagers and processors who buy raw material from tomato producers, and sell it to retailers. They have to pay for transportation, processing, and packaging of tomatoes. But they know that the retailers will only pay a cheap price for their goods, so they also need to buy the raw material for cheap to be able to make some profit. 

What’s left at the beginning of this chain is the tomato farmer. With the downward pressure on prices just described, you can conclude yourself that farmers don’t make much money. However, they need to keep everything running: the raw materials, the land, the machinery, the labour, all to be paid for. Bringing together all of these costs, they need to ensure that they can still make a living. Oxfam has analysed the policies of some of the major supermarket chains in Europe and the US, finding that supermarkets retain an increasing share of the price paid by consumers – up to 50% in some cases – while the share for workers and producers is often less than 5%.5

So how can farmers survive?

There are two ways of making tomato production so inexpensive that even cheap supermarket prices wouldn’t make farmers broke. The first one is to use machines to perform labour-intensive tasks, such as harvesting. A machine is still a cost to the producer, but: 1) it works significantly faster than people; 2) you don’t need to pay a salary for its work; and 3) you need just a few people to operate it.6

Mechanized labour may use less workers than traditional harvest techniques, but still requires human labour.

For these reasons, today much of the tomato harvest is mechanised, and hand-picking is now comparatively marginal. However, the need for hand-pickers also depends on weather conditions, so their work tends to vary season to season. If it rains, for example, machines can’t enter the fields, and it’s necessary to harvest by hand. Different organisations claim that hand-picking accounts for different amounts of the overall tomato harvest, but we would be safe to say that it accounts for roughly 15% of the harvest.7 

The toll on invisible workers

Here’s where our story gets darker. The second way of maintaining low prices and stable farm income even when humans are at work comes at a serious cost to farm workers. Farm labourers often have their fundamental rights neglected, working 12-hour shifts without a contract and without the guarantee that they will be paid minimum wage–or that they will be paid at all.8,9

But who is willing to take this job, or rather, to endure this form of modern slavery? As FAO reports, the agriculture sector currently ranks fourth most affected by modern slavery, behind fishing, construction, and manufacturing. Agriculture on its own accounts for two million people affected by modern slavery worldwide, among which migrants represent the most vulnerable group.10

Italian “caporalato”: the gangmasters

In Italy, the “caporalato” is the illegal form of workforce recruitment that makes cheap labour possible. The “caporali” are middle men who find farm labourers and manage their relationship with farm managers, often receiving bribes from both sides. In English, they are sometimes called team leaders or gangmasters, as they are in charge of the whole recruitment process, international trafficking, and logistics of the lives of the labourers. These include housing (full-fledged slums), food, transport to and from the fields, and payments.11

The caporali decide arbitrarily who gets to work and who doesn’t, who gets paid and who doesn’t, but also when and how much. “This phenomenon has both pre-industrial aspects and aspects of a global society. These people live in nothingness, poverty, as agricultural labourers lived a century ago. But they are recruited through targeted online ads, asking them ‘Do you want to earn 30 euros a day? Come to Italy!’” claims Diletta Bellotti, human rights advocate and expert in migration and human rights. But caporalato was born to help solve an issue: without them, it would be very hard for Italian farmers to find enough people to work in their fields. “It is in all effects a mafia activity,” Bellotti added, “and as other mafia activities, it was born to fill an institutional void.”

Photo: A farm labourer ties a tomato stem to a post.

Many of the people who hope to move to Italy to find a better future – and to other European countries, as similar forms of illegal recruitment happen also in countries such as Spain and the UK – get stuck in the slums without a way to leave them. In Italy, for example, to get a residence permit you need to provide proof of a job contract and a rent contract. But if you’re a trafficked farm labourer, you have neither. And so you remain stuck in a limbo of legal, social, and moral invisibility. 

In slums, labourers die of pneumonia because they refuse to go to the hospital; women perform home-made abortions that can often lead to complications and even death. They avoid the hospital because they fear being sent back to their home countries. As a trafficked farm worker, you wouldn’t be able to interact with the communities outside of your slum. You can’t, because you need to be in the slums to be able to work. You rely completely on the caporale to bring you to the fields–you can’t ask him or her to come pick you up at will from your own home! And in any case, you most likely wouldn’t even have the money to afford your own housing.11,12,13,14,15,16

Is it possible to have a more ethical tomato?

In 2016, the Italian government introduced a law making caporalato illegal, and began an investigation on this phenomenon in 2018.17,18 A new law against reverse auctions was approved by the parliament in 2019, and is currently awaiting a decision from the senate.19 In the UK, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was formed in 2005, which has been strengthened by the Modern Slavery Act introduced in 2015 to investigate forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking offences.20 A European directive addressing these issues (2019/633) was also approved in April 2019, and will have to be implemented by all EU countries by May 2021.21

Some people claim that the only alternative to the caporali seems to be mechanisation. But it’s not uncommon for people who operate farm machinery to be recruited by the caporali too.

These are all fundamental steps, but they’re not enough in themselves to solve the situation. The introduction of these laws in both Italy and the UK hasn’t led to guaranteed human rights for all farm workers. Unfortunately, the introduction of a law doesn’t automatically mean that the law will be properly and consistently applied.

Realistic changes for producers, retailers, and consumers

So is there anything we can do to solve this situation? Some people claim that, where it’s possible and convenient, the only alternative to the caporali seems to be mechanisation. But it’s not uncommon for people who operate the machines to be recruited by the caporali too!22 Below are some solutions suggested by journalistic and institutional reports, academics, human rights advocates, and labourers themselves, to fight trafficked labour:

Transparent packaging labels 

At the moment, it’s compulsory to have some basic information on labels, including ingredients, nutritional values, and expiry dates. However, product chains could be made more transparent if other information had to be presented on food packaging labels. Below are some examples of information that, appearing on labels, would contribute to create a fairer supply chain. It’s a lot of stuff to put on a tomato package, but we could come up with creative ways to make it accessible online – for example using QR codes, or links, that allow people to view the following information on producers and distributors’ websites. 

Origin: not only state, but also region and province. This would make it easier for people to understand which products they should buy for both environmental (local products) and traceability reasons (allowing them to investigate which kind of practices are employed at the origin of the products).

Register of suppliers: all of the suppliers that were involved in the making of that product. 

Name of the company responsible for transport: the food transport sector is among those most prone to infiltration by organised crime. Making it more transparent would push distributors and producers to employ people who are not involved in illegal businesses of any kind. 

Number of workers in the field and number of cultivated hectares: a quick cross-check between these numbers would allow authorities to find out immediately whether they should be suspicious of any undeclared work. 

Transparent price: a breakdown of the price into percentages, clearly showing how the price is distributed to pay each entity in the chain: distributors, processing companies, logistics and transport companies, producers, and raw material. 

Subsidies to fair producers

Governments could give subsidies to companies that commit not to resort to illegal forms of hiring and managing the workforce. 

Citizen-led initiatives 

Vivere senza supermercato” is an Italian initiative started by a group of friends who decided that they wanted to create an easier way for consumers to be more ethically responsible. The initiative created a map, on which they’ve pinned down all the retailers that sell local and ethical products around the country. Using or creating tools of this kind could drive a significant amount of consumers away from “illegal” products. 

Spending more, if possible

Unfortunately, trying to help as consumers isn’t going to be cheap (unless we start growing our own tomatoes and just eat them when they’re seasonal!). Caporalato-free products rarely make it into large-scale distribution, and even when they do, they are expensive. However, if you are aware of this issue and you can afford to pay a bit more, this could be a big help to producers who are trying to do the right thing. 

Using our voices

These issues will be solved mainly through politics. But for politics to move, we need to show that this is a need of ours at a national and international level. Looking out for petitions and using our voices to spread awareness of this issue is going to be crucial to ensure that politicians know that there’s public backing to solve this situation. 

I hope that, if we all speak and make our friends and families aware of this issue, hold our governments accountable, and do what’s in our power as consumers, this article soon won’t be timely anymore. The story will hit its resolution, and tomatoes will stop reminding me of blood. 

What are you willing to do? Let us know in the comments below!

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