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Labour exploitation in the agricultural sector


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When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: Whose?"
(Don Marquis)




Employment in the Italian agricultural sector is characterised by a prevalence of precarious and short-term employment relationships and an increase in seasonal work. In such context, migrant workers constitute a potential basin for the supply of underpaid and unqualified labour, due to their specific conditions of vulnerability (scarce knowledge of the labour protection instruments, unfit accommodation, distance from worksites, etc.). Indeed, the drop in the number of agricultural workers over the decades has gone hand in hand with an exponential increase in the presence of migrant workers, by now considered indispensible for the maintenance and actual existence of the agricultural sector. In fact, it has been estimated that foreign workers account for about one fourth of the total workforce in agriculture (Immigration Statistic Dossier, Idos – 2018).

A considerable amount of said basin results to be hired irregularly, through the so-called "gangmaster system" (caporalato): an expression that refers to illegal labour intermediation, workers' irregular recruitment and organisation, and labour exploitation (mainly) in the agricultural sector.

The so-called gang masters (caporali) act as intermediaries for employers recruiting workers outside the normal employment channels and without respecting the minimum contractual wages, withholding for themselves part of the pay (a sort of bribery). A crucial aspect of the phenomenon concerns the monopoly of the transport system, even obliging farm workers to pay their transfer to their worksites.

Such intermediation is present when there is a wide gap between agricultural holdings and individuals in search of a job, and when it is particularly complicated to organise work which is to be carried out in teams. Often, the gangmaster system results to be the only organisational mechanism capable of filling that structural gap between labour demand and supply.

According to the estimates of the Fourth Report issued by the "Placido Rizzotto Observatory" which is part of the FLAI-CGIL (June 2018), the Mafia's infiltration in the agricultural and food industry and in the gangmaster system managing labour demand and supply produces an illegal and underground economy amounting to more than 5 billion Euros. Besides, the number of foreign workers exposed to the risk of irregular recruitment ranges between 400 thousand and 430 thousand, of whom 130 thousand are in serious conditions of vulnerability.

The official data, though, provide a partial picture of the progressive increase in the amount of foreign workers involved in the agricultural sector, as said data concern only workers regularly employed. Therefore, the statistics do not include a consistent number of workers totally lacking contractual protection (the so-called "undeclared employment" – "lavoro nero") and workers with a partial contractual protection (the so-called "under declared employment" "lavoro grigio"). In the latter case, farm workers are formally hired, but employers report to the Social Security Agency fewer days of employment than those actually worked.

Therefore, it is impossible to collect the official data on the phenomenon. However, according to ISTAT, irregular work in agriculture has been in constant increase in the last ten years, reaching a value equal to 23%, almost double compared to the irregular work identified in the national economic sectors in their whole, estimated at about 12 % (Istat's 2015 Report, "The economic performance of agriculture in Italy").


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