Tomatoes and slaves: The Italian Ambassador writes

Italy's Ambassador to New Zealand Fabrizio Marcelli responds to Newsroom stories - and The Detail podcasts - questioning the price of imported tinned tomatoes in light of reports of slave labour in the industry in his home country.

An article published on June 20 in The Guardian by investigative journalists Tobias Jones and Awo Awokoya detailed the exploitation of irregular migrants in agricultural jobs in southern Italy (modern slavery) and the system of caporalato, by which the recruitment and payment of day-labourers is subcontracted to a gangmaster, the caporale. The article delves into the flow of irregular migrants to Italy and their vulnerability to criminal organisations, who take advantage of their irregular status.

This report led Newsroom's Nikki Mandow to angle her article, published on October 2, “Are we buying slave-picked tinned tomatoes? “, referring to the price difference between local tinned tomatoes -Hawkes Bay grown- and imports from Italy.

The variety of plain tinned tomatoes (without condiments) available in New Zealand supermarkets reveals a relevant price difference: from 75 cents for a tin of Italian-sourced product to $2 for the locally-sourced brand. She then implies that the much lower price for the Italian product is due to the use of slave labour in tomato harvesting. On the same day, the article was republished by Stuff and was echoed by RNZ on two podcasts of the Detail on October 10 and 11.

My aim is not to contradict the original report, that highlights the sad exploitation of irregular migrants, an easy target for the criminal organisations that plague the southern part of my country, but to disprove the equation that a low-priced Italian product equals slave labour.

The competitiveness, success and low price of the Italian canned tomato industry worldwide is due to the scale of manufacturing operations (more than 5 million tons per year) and to the input of technological innovations throughout the entire supply chain, as indicated by the heavy reliance on mechanically harvesting. Today in Italy, the harvesting of almost the entire tomato crop (95 percent) is  by machines and not picked by hand. Mechanisation is also employed in the successive phases of industrial processing, the washing and canning of tomatoes.

Hence, the variance in price reflects the disparity in productivity in tomato farming in Italy and New Zealand.

Following similar articles in the Australian media, an antidumping investigation was carried out by the Australian Government on the import of tomato products. The investigation has concluded there was no dumping.

On the institutional-repressive side, a law on illegal hiring, which tackles forms of labour exploitation in agriculture (caporalato), was approved in 2016 (law number 199) and since then it has been actively enforced. It represents a true deterrent to farmers from employing illegal workes, since it punishes offenders with imprisonment from one to six years and a fine of 500 to1000 Euros for each worker employed or recruited.

Much more remains to be done to completely eradicate the exploitation of irregular migrants in agriculture. To this end, a stakeholder roundtable (NGOs, workers’ unions, organisations of agricultural employers and government institutions) has been set up by law 136 of 2018 to monitor the labour market and to encourage registration of tomato farms to adopt ethical supply chain verification systems. The new Italian Agriculture Minister, Teresa Bellanova was a former agricultural labourer and union activist in the fight against caporalato. Her nomination is clear evidence the elimination of the gang master system in which workers, mainly migrants are illegally recruited for agricultural labour with little or no pay and slavery-like conditions, is a political priority of the Italian Government.

Fabrizio Marcelli

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners