How “good” is the tomato? The collection between corporal and ethical supply chains


Behind the tomato harvesting in the fields is often hiding the hired gang. But a sustainable supply chain is possible, as some virtuous projects demonstrate.

Italy is the second largest tomato producer in the world after the United States. The harvest of tomatoes is frequently linked to the phenomena of illegal hiring with the exploitation of workers, Italians and immigrants, paid a few euros for a day’s work in the fields. The struggle for workers’ rights passes from the recognition of a minimum wage, from the reform of the agricultural supply chain and from fair remuneration for agriculture. Associations and cooperatives bring “caporalato free” tomatoes to the market.

Summer is the season of tomatoes that ripen in the sun in the fields: according to Ismea data, in 2021 in Italia have been collected six million tons that the food industry has transformed into peeled tomatoes, sauces and purées, for a turnover of 3.7 billion euros. A collection that has made our country the second largest producer of fresh tomatoes in the worldafter the United States and before China, but behind which socially unsustainable supply chains are often hidden due to exploitation of workers on farms. A commonly defined phenomenon corporal.

Italy is the second country in the world in the production of tomatoes © iStock

Caporalato: illegality and exploitation in the tomato harvest

Are the “Corporals” who, on behalf of agricultural property, recruit illegally foreigners (most of the time irregular) but also Italians (women mainly) for the day work in the fields. A job paid in black, without recognizing them the compliance with working hours and a minimum wage. Indeed, withholding part of the fee and even charging for the transport to the collection point. The laborers thus find themselves picking tomatoes for ten or twelve hours, under the scorching sun, for a negligible fee: from 3 to 5 euros for a box of 300 kilos of tomatoes.

Laborers victims of work: the deaths from the fields to the ghettos

So summer also becomes the season of the tragic stories of the laborers who, at worstthey die in the fields exhausted by heat and fatigue; that remain victims of road accidents with the vans, driven by the corporals, in which they are crammed on the way to the meeting place; or who lose their lives in ghetto fires, the settlements in the countryside where those without documents or a house take refuge and which often take on the dimensions of real slums with thousands of people. They are places where integration is lost and once again settles there organized crime. And where any kind of security is lacking.

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A portrait of Aboubakar Soumahoro

Last June Yusupha Joofa 35-year-old laborer from The Gambia, burned to death in the flames that arose in his shack in ghetto of Torretta Antonacci, in the Foggia area, one of the territories where a large part of the Italian production of tomatoes is concentrated. This year, the government awarded 200 million euros of the funds of the Pnrr to the Municipalities for overcoming the illegal settlements of agricultural laborers and the creation of decent housing for workers in the agricultural sector but, as declared by the association Terra!ghettos are only part of the problem that requires rethinking the entire national agricultural system.

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Caporalato, a plague that affects all of Italy

In 2020 the V Agromafie and Caporalato Reportedited by the Placido Rizzotto observatory for Flai-Cgil, quantified in about 180mila particularly vulnerable workers e. therefore, subject to exploitation phenomena. The latter do not concern only the south and only the tomato: as the survey reveals Geography of the corporalmade by the same observatory, are 405 areas along the entire boot affected by phenomena of exploitation and illegal hiring: 123 in the south, 71 in the islands, the others between north and center. Last spring a sentence in Saluzzo, in the province of Cuneo, made headlines. It was in fact one of the first with which, in the north, some corporals and farm owners were sentenced in a trial that started with the denunciation of exploited laborers.

Contrast to illegal hiring: from law 199 to fair compensation

A conviction made possible by the law 199/2016 which introduced control tools, as well as sanctions and penalties for corporals and farm owners guilty of labor exploitation. But there is still a lot to do. Aboubakar Soumahororepresentative of the League of Laborers and spokesman for Invisibles in motion, on 4 July chained himself in front of Montecitorio, inaugurating a hunger and thirst strike to give voices to many exploited workers and ask for a discussion with Prime Minister Mario Draghi on the legal minimum wage, the adoption of a national plan against accidents at work and the reform of the agri-food chain.

Yes, because the solution to the scourge of illegal hiring involves everyone: farmers, producer organizations, the canning industry, large retailers, consumers. Negotiating the price of agricultural products downwards hinders the recognition of a fair compensation. According to Coldiretti, when you buy a puree at the supermarket you pay more for the packaging than for its contents. In a 700 ml bottle, for sale on average at € 1.30, only 8 per cent is the value recognized for tomatoes. Over half (53 percent) represents the commercial distribution margin with promotions. The rest is used to cover the costs of industrial production (18 per cent), of the bottle (10 per cent), of transport (6 per cent), of the cap and label (3 per cent) and of advertising (2 per cent). ).

Ethical tomato: a sustainable supply chain is possible

Another ethical supply chain is possible. There are those in the agricultural sector cultivates and produces legally hiring migrants. However, we need tools that distinguish those who choose the path of legality from those who work in conditions of exploitation.

In general, reading thelabel of a tomato sauce it is not known whether it was produced through the exploitation of someone. However, there are products that certainly exclude this possibility. For example, the preserves and fresh fruit and vegetables ofassociation No Capborn from the experience of Yvan Legenda Cameroonian who first shed light on the phenomenon of illegal hiring with a strike for workers’ rights in 2011 in Nardò, in Puglia.

Or even the peeled tomatoes “Welcomed”, fruit of the work of the guests of Casa Shankara Ghetto out. The voluntary organization manages the Fortore farm, in San Severo, granted in concession by the Puglia Region, and is committed to creating an alternative reality to the ghetto where to live and to plan a legal and dignified path of economic and social integration.

Tomato Revolution, instead, it is the caporalato-free project of Altromercato. Collaborate with cooperatives such as Receives Bio who, not far from the ghetto of Rignano in Puglia, pursues a policy of legal and multi-ethnic recruitment; or how Scrap stone who grows tomatoes and olives on land confiscated from the Foggia mafia, with the aim of transforming them into a laboratory of rebirth.

The choice of products that claim to come from legal and ethical supply chains helps consumers to do their part in the fight against illegal hiring and not to go along with the logic of low-cost offers. Because, behind too small a price, there is someone else who pays the bill.

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