by Andrew Wasley and Cecilia Ferrara
Southern Italy is known for its fine food, wines and plentiful sunshine, but visitors might be shocked to learn that its famous countryside and farmland – in particular its citrus groves and tomato fields – are the setting for a modern-day story of exploitation and inequality.
Each year, thousands of migrant workers – predominantly from Africa, but also Eastern Europe and other parts of Italy (some legal, some illegal) – flock to the region looking for work in the seasonal fruit and vegetable harvests.
Official estimates of numbers are hard to come by but the Italian farmer groupColdiretti estimates around 120,000 migrants are working in the agricultural sector in southern Italy.
Some cash-strapped farmers, often working in conjunction with middlemen – or gangmasters – are only too happy to take advantage of this ready supply of cheap labour. And the farmers say that the prices they receive from buyers aren’t sufficient to sustain more permanent workers and regular wages.
Coca-Cola caught up in controversy
In 2012, an investigation uncovered the plight of migrants employed in Southern Italy’s orange harvest, centred around the town of Rosarno. Many were found to be living in squalid conditions, some in shanty-style camps, with no running water or electricity, others in abandoned farmhouses or derelict factories; some were found to be sleeping in the open.
For a day’s work in the orange groves, migrants were found to receive around €25 (£19), with deductions by gangmasters for transport and lunch.
The revelations prompted an outcry across Italy and pledges from the Coca-Cola Company – which was found to be using orange ingredients from the region in its European-sold Fanta drinks – to extend its auditing of suppliers and facilitate talks to improve conditions across the supply chain.
Four years on from the scandal, Coca-Cola says it has now upgraded how it assesses suppliers to check on the recruitment and employment of migrant workers, but with record numbers of refugees and migrants now entering the EU, the situation in Rosarno is still precarious.
More than 80% of the migrants working in agriculture in the region don’t have an employment contract and more than half of them are sleeping on the ground, living without water, electricity and hygienic services, says Medici per i Diritti Umani (Doctors for Human Rights), a medical organisation that treats migrants in mobile clinics in the town.
“The more desperate workers are the more they can be blackmailed by gangmasters or the owners. If you are not happy with the working conditions there are hundreds like you around the corner,” says Celeste Logiacco from the FLAI CGIL Calabria (Union of Agricultural Workers).
The authorities can now penalise companies employing gangmasters, but the NGO Terra!, which campaigns for greater transparancy in the sector, says that tackling the problem has proved difficult because of the complex nature of the orange supply chain, meaning it is easy for companies to avoid responsibility.
“The problem in the orange chain is the number of passages of the product,” says campaigner Fabio Ciconte. “The small producer sells the oranges either to an organisation of producers or to a buyer who sells to a big supermarket. When we go in a supermarket or market we don’t know anything about the oranges, where they come from, which harvest, who picked them.”
Coca-Cola says that all its suppliers are based in Sicily, but it could be sourcing oranges that had been harvested in the Rosarno region and shipped to Sicily. However, it said it had audited all its suppliers in Sicily and taken action to reduce the risk of it being linked to the exploitation of migrants.
“All suppliers are required to meet our supplier guiding principles. These highlight the expectations of suppliers and emphasise the importance of responsible workplace practices that respect human rights and comply, at a minimum, with applicable environmental and local labour laws and core international conventions,” said a spokesperson, who added that Coca-Cola had also been supporting projects in the Rosarno region that helped migrant workers.
Many farmers acknowledge the conditions of migrant workers, but say the root of the problem lies in the economic situation. “If you are a small producer you have two solutions: one, leave the oranges on the trees, or two, exploit [those] weaker than you,” says Nino Quaranta, a producer and founder of SosRosarno, a cooperative fighting the workers exploitation in orange harvesting.
The companies procuring juice and other orange products from the region say they are not responsible for fixing the prices paid for raw materials and to farmers. “Our associates don’t harvest oranges or have direct contacts with the producers. They buy juice from transformation industries that buy oranges from consortiums and producers,” says David Dabiankov Lorini, president of the soft drinks association Assobibe, which includes Coca-Cola among its members.
Although acknowledging the problems facing migrant workers in the region, Lorini points out that his sector is not the only destination for Rosarno’s orange harvest, with just 7% of Italian citrus production going into the juice and aromas industry.
This article was published on The Guardian on February 18, 2016.