Are supermarket canned tomatoes now free from labour exploitation?

Tim Gore Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Inequality, Livelihoods, Private sector, Rights

Tim Gore shares three key findings from Oxfam’s human rights impact assessment of the Italian processed tomato sector.

There have been a range of media and NGO reports in recent years about endemic labour exploitation in the Italian tomato sector. But as Oxfam’s The People Behind the Prices, shows, while some progress has been made, many of the root causes of exploitation remain. This new publication is a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) of the Italian processed tomato supply chains of Finland’s biggest food retailer, SOK Corporation.

The report has already generated interest from a range of food retailers around the world, many of them targets of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign. Many supermarkets are now recognising that they can no longer solely rely on tick-box social audits of labour conditions in their supply chains — which often miss critical issues. HRIAs are one of the more robust and proactive tools they need to exercise due diligence.

So, what can SOK Corporation, their peers and stakeholders learn from our assessment of this sector?

  1. More workers have formal contracts, but exploitation remains

Past reports have focused on the role of informal labour brokers linked to organised criminal networks. These ‘caporale’ organise daily teams of migrant manual tomato pickers to work on remote farms without contracts; for long hours and low piece rate wages.

There have been legislative steps to ban caporale, and hold the farmers that use them to account. Many tomato processing companies have also increased mechanical harvesting, to reduce the reliance on large numbers of short-term manual workers.

Having a contract does not mean there is no illegal gang-mastering.
Now the form of exploitation has evolved. More workers have contracts, but as one participant noted, “having a contract does not mean there is no illegal gang-mastering”. Many of the workers we interviewed that reported having a formal contract, said they had been recruited by caporale and still relied on them for transport to farms.

Stakeholders describe the sector as having transitioned from a ‘black’ labour market, reliant on an illegal labour force, to a ‘grey’ one; where there is widespread fraud in under-reporting working hours to the social security system. This means that simple audit approaches that only check the existence of contracts and pay rolls at farms will not reveal the reality of wages and working conditions.

Significantly, we found that low wages and long working hours were common across the workers interviewed, irrespective of whether they had a contract or not, worked in manual or mechanical harvesting, and even whether caporale had been involved in their recruitment or not. This points to a structural problem of depressed labour costs, rather than an essentially criminal one.

  1. Accommodation and transport demand urgent attention

Alongside low wages and the excessive working hours that characterise piece rate work, other human rights impacts remain. Not a single worker we interviewed reported having access to free drinking water on the farms, in spite of recent deaths.

The standard of available accommodation is also appalling. Thousands are housed in ‘ghettoes’ that lack running water, electricity and basic sanitation. And almost a third of the workers we interviewed said they did not even live in the ghetto, but were homeless nearby. Critically, this issue is not covered in the standard supplier codes of conduct, including that of amfori BSCI, a major blind spot.

Transport to farms remains deadly; workers are crammed into vans run by caporale at a cost of 5 euros, per worker, per day. During the assessment, 16 tomato sector workers were killed in two separate road accidents in Puglia. Signficantly, a new partnership between Princes and the Coldiretti trade union includes provision for workers’ transport, which shows one way that this problem could be tackled.

  1. The price of Italian tomatoes falls, while labour costs increase

Oxfam’s framework for identifying root causes of labour exploitation in food supply chains distinguishes between two categories: factors associated with the supply of labour that is acutely vulnerable to exploitation, and those associated with the creation of demand for cheap labour.

The lack of adequate legal protection for migrant workers’ rights in Italy, the lack of formal recruitment services for the agricultural sector, and the presence of criminal networks are all critical factors driving the vulnerability of thousands of workers in Italy’s agricultural sector.

Key to our assessment was the analysis of bargaining power dynamics in the value chain.
But key to our assessment was the analysis of bargaining power dynamics in the value chain. Like many in the industry, SOK Corporation’s own purchasing practices encourage prices to be set that are disconnected from the costs of ethical production in Italy.

Prices paid by the retailer (via its Nordic buying group) have fallen 15-25% in real terms in the last five years, while those agreed between the processing industry association and tomato producer organisations have fallen 10%. Meanwhile, wages negotiated by trade unions in the local collective sectoral agreement increased by 8%. This squeeze on prices in the context of rising labour costs creates an economic incentive for ‘grey’ labour practices, and increases the risk of human rights violations.

Our assessment points to the need for SOK Corporation to exercise due diligence around prices negotiated in the chain. The company has recognised that squeezing low prices can have a human cost, and Oxfam welcomes some of their initial commitments to ensure price negotiations do not risk “undermining the prerequisites for ethical production.”

It is only by tackling the root causes of exploitation — from improving formal recruitment channels to ensuring prices match the costs of ethical production — that real progress for workers’ rights will be made.


Tim Gore