Italy combat poor treatment of agricultural labourers

Italy combat poor treatment of agricultural labourers

In Italy, the pervasive issue of labor exploitation in agriculture, particularly through the 'caporalato' (or gangstering) system, has led to significant responses from both local communities and the national government. The 'caporalato' system, characterised by the illegal employment of a large number of workers for minimal pay and under poor living conditions. It has notably impacted ‘third-country nationals’ who are a considerable part of Italy's agricultural workforce. Reports indicate that there are around 370,000 irregular workers in the agricultural sector, which is about 22% of the total agricultural workforce in Italy. Across the EU, the fruit and vegetable sector is dependent on a migrant labour force, either from other EU Member States or third countries, that fill the increasing vacancies due to “ongoing decline in national agricultural workforces”. 

Local communities and civil society organisations have voiced their concerns about the negative impacts of this exploitation, emphasising the need for effective measures to protect vulnerable workers and ensure fair labor practices. In response, eight municipalities in Italy developed local plans in 2023 as part of the first phase of the InCaS project, aimed at tackling labour exploitation in agriculture. This local initiative aligns with Italy's national Three-Year-Plan, which was extended to cover the period from 2020 to 2025, to combat labor exploitation. The InCaS project, funded by the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, represents a significant step in this direction, particularly in the context of the estimated tens of thousands of workers affected by exploitative systems like 'caporalato'. Notably, the municipalities involved, including Albenga, Castel Volturno, Corigliano-Rossano, Lavello, Porto Recanati, Rovigo, Saluzzo, and Siracusa, have formulated their plans through participatory processes, incorporating the inputs and concerns of local actors, reflecting a community-driven approach to the issue.


To further these efforts, the Italian government introduced the National Action Plan (NAP). The NAP is specifically designed to address and mitigate undeclared work practices, illegal recruitment, and exploitation in seasonal agricultural work. It aims to provide decent work opportunities leading to the social inclusion of exploited workers. This plan is particularly pertinent in the context where seasonal workers, many of whom are among the 150,000 to 200,000 seasonal migrant workers in Italy, are vulnerable to illegal recruitment, occupational health and safety issues, and poor living conditions, a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NAP outlines a comprehensive strategy structured around four strategic pillars – prevention, protection, enforcement, and remedies. It sets out 10 priority policy interventions, engaging both public and private sector actors at national and local levels. The actions under the NAP include inspection and enforcement activities, awareness campaigns, and cooperation between employment services. Specifically, the plan focuses on ‘third-country nationals’, who face higher risks due to factors like language barriers and a lack of knowledge about their rights.

Funded through a combination of sources, including national and regional funding, the European Social Fund, the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, and Next Generation EU, the NAP is coordinated by the Inter-Institutional Committee on Labour Exploitation. This committee is responsible for planning, implementing, and monitoring policy interventions. The expected outcomes include lawful recruitment in the agro-food industry, promotion of decent work, better labor law enforcement and compliance, and the protection of victims of labor exploitation with measures for their socio-economic inclusion.

In addition, in order to further augment Italy's efforts against labor exploitation in its agricultural sector, particularly building upon the foundations laid by the National Action Plan (NAP) and the InCaS project, a series of comprehensive policy recommendations could be implemented. Firstly, enhancing the legal framework specifically for migrant workers is crucial, involving amending existing labor laws or introducing new legislation to offer better protection in terms of work contracts, wages, and working conditions. Accordingly, strengthening inspection and enforcement mechanisms is vital, including increasing the number and expertise of labor inspectors with a special focus on the agricultural sector and employing technology to monitor working conditions and enforce compliance.

Moreover, forming public-private partnerships to endorse ethical labor practices is another key strategy. These partnerships, involving the government, agricultural businesses, and NGOs, could promote and certify businesses adhering to fair labor standards. Improving access to legal and social services for workers, especially migrant and seasonal ones, is essential, including providing multilingual support centers to offer legal aid, healthcare, and housing assistance.

Furthermore, conducting awareness and education campaigns to inform workers about their rights and employers about their responsibilities can be extremely impactful. This could be achieved through various forms of media, workshops, and community gatherings. In relation to this, supporting the formation of unions or worker cooperatives would also empower agricultural workers, enabling them to negotiate for better wages and conditions.

In addition, implementing a system of incentives for businesses that comply with labor laws and stringent penalties for violators is critical. This could range from rewards for compliant businesses to severe repercussions like the suspension of business licenses for violators. Integrating advanced technologies like blockchain for contract management and systems for monitoring work hours can enhance transparency and adherence to regulations. Lastly, international collaboration is imperative, particularly in working with the source countries of migrant workers to ensure safe migration channels and combat illegal recruitment practices. In relation to this, developing long-term socioeconomic strategies that tackle the root causes of labor exploitation, such as poverty and global agricultural export chains are vital in addressing the issue as a whole.

In conclusion, Italy's response to labor exploitation in agriculture, particularly through the 'caporalato' system, is a significant advance towards justice and ethical labor practices. The combined efforts in the InCaS project and the NAP, integrating local and national strategies, demonstrate a profound commitment to human dignity and labor rights. They address the immediate needs of 'third-country nationals' and pave the way for a future where the agricultural sector is defined by fairness, equity, and respect for all workers' rights. 

However, there are myriad other avenues to further protect the human rights of Argo-labourers. We suggest that the EU follow the policy advice of ‘Faces of Migration’, and work to limit the role of large multinational food companies in the wider distribution and employment chain, which often contribute to the global conditions that create large populations of migrant labour. Developing local and sustainable food markets, rather than subsidised exports to third countries which lower food prices, which often destroy local markets and degrade employment possibilities, will help to reduce the suffering of those travelling for sustainable employment. 


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