The Guardian: Europe’s “healthy Mediterranean diet is, sometimes, the fruit of 21st-century slavery…”

The Guardian: “[European] supermarkets and their suppliers cite their use of certifications that are intended to reassure consumers that the goods we buy are produced under legal labour practices.

But as these stories demonstrate, such figleaves are totally unreliable, and simply make the consumer unwittingly complicit: those purchasing Italian produce are unaware that their healthy Mediterranean diet is, sometimes, the fruit of 21st-century slavery…”

Today, we wanted to bring you some news from across the pond.

When we think of Europe – home to the United Nations and the European Union, birthplace of Fair Trade – we may envision a more progressive, liberal world, one in which the principles of human rights and dignity are not only enshrined in international law, but effectively protected and enforced in the marketplace.  However, it is increasingly evident that, at least for the women and men laboring in Europe’s agricultural fields, the grass may not be much greener on the other continent after all. 

As groundbreaking investigative reporting by The Guardian has illustrated over the past several months, when it comes to working conditions, European agriculture suffers from many of the same horrific abuses – and, the same root cause of those abuses – as does U.S. agriculture on farms that remain beyond the protections of the Fair Food Program.

Today, we want to share some of the highlights of The Guardian‘s reporting, specifically two articles:  “Rape and abuse: the price of a job in Spain’s strawberry industry?” (February 2019) and “Are your tinned tomatoes picked by slave labour?” (June 2019).  Ultimately, these portraits of dire working conditions in Europe only serve to underscore the need to ensure that the Fair Food Program – which has been recognized by the United Nations as the “international benchmark” for combating slavery worldwide, and the only proven model to uproot longstanding abuses in industrial agriculture – becomes not only the norm in all of U.S. agriculture, but in fields and agricultural industries across the globe, as soon as possible.

The symptoms:  Widespread abuse across European agriculture

First, we begin with the abuses that are documented, in painful detail, by The Guardian in the Spanish strawberry industry:

Over the coming weeks an estimated 20,000 Moroccan women will arrive in Spain to help bring in this year’s strawberry harvest. The women make up a large percentage of the seasonal workforce in Andalucía, employed under a seasonal worker visa scheme that has been operated by the Spanish and Moroccan governments since 2001. They will help to cultivate and harvest 400,000 tonnes of strawberries expected to be exported from the region this year to supermarkets in the UK, France and Germany. Spain is by far the largest exporter of strawberries in Europe, and this booming €580m export industry is now so important to the fragile Spanish economy that it has been dubbed the country’s “red gold”.

Over the past few years, reports of widespread sexual and physical abuse and exploitation of Moroccan seasonal workers have surfaced in the local and international media…

…Alicia Navascues, from women’s rights group Mujeres 24, said that Moroccan women were being deliberately targeted because of their vulnerability. “Morocco women working as temporary workers in the field have described to us dehumanising and harsh working conditions they must endure, working in permanently crouched positions with a single break of 30 minutes a day in temperatures of 40 degrees under the plastic of the greenhouses,” she said. “In Morocco they are deliberately looking for those who are cheap and vulnerable to do this work, namely rural women with young children who only understand Arabic, cannot understand their contracts written in Spanish or claim their rights. It is a rigged system.”…

… [Sahmira Ahmed] and the nine other Moroccan women who travelled to Spain on seasonal visas last year told the Observer that they had experienced serious and sustained sexual violence and labour exploitation on the farm where they were working.

They claimed they were forced to live in cramped and dirty shipping containers, with hundreds of female workers sharing a few showers and faulty toilets.

During the day they were racially abused and forced to work for 12-hour shifts without pay. They were denied food and water and penalised for taking toilet breaks or not working hard enough.

The article goes on to document the tragic consequences several workers faced after taking these abuses to the police, where they not only did not find recourse, but were ultimately left in “legal limbo” in the absence of any meaningful investigation and unable to return to their home countries. 

Sadly, these conditions are not isolated to strawberries, or to Spain.  The most recent article on the topic of European agriculture that came out just this month focused in on the Italian agricultural industry – principally tomatoes – and mirrored many of the same dire problems that workers in Spain are facing:


In the Italian south, the lives of foreign agricultural labourers are so cheap that many NGOs have described their conditions as a modern form of slavery. They live in isolated rural ruins or shanty towns. Some have Italian residency permits, but many don’t. A few have work contracts, although union organisers often find they are fake. Desperate for work, these labourers will accept any job in the fields even if the wages are far below, and the hours far above, union standards. The produce they pick regularly ends up on the shelves of Italian, and international, supermarkets, bought by consumers who have no idea of the suffering involved…

…Many migrants have reported being beaten by employers, who also make sexual demands. Violence, especially against women, is alarmingly common. Beauty, a Nigerian woman in a purple wig who lives in the San Ferdinando shanty town, told us: “You never feel safe. Even when you sleep, you have one eye open.”

Tayo, a 22-year-old Nigerian, was assaulted when she tried to defend a friend. Sexual violence is a constant in these bleak places: in 2015, in Ragusa, Sicily, a labourer living in a shanty town was killed and his wife raped. In 2011, an investigation revealed dozens of Romanian labourers had been forced into prostitution…

…For the labourers dropped off at dawn in the fields, the work is relentless. In December 2018, we went out with five Africans cutting broccoli. They were wearing ill-fitting gloves and cracked wellington boots. Their clothing was frayed and encrusted with dry mud. They were each given a small knife. A green John Deere tractor crawled forward, and the five men crouched down, cutting the thick stems and chucking the broccoli heads in a crate behind the tractor. The stems, in the winter dawn, were covered in icy shards, and their knives often broke against them. By the end of the day, broken blades lay in a small pile just inside the tractor. With inadequate footwear, it was easy to slice your foot open. It was so cold we could see steam rising off the mens’ bent backs.

The diagnosis:  An unregulated agricultural industry and failed CSR experiments by corporate food retailers

In the longer investigative report on Italian agriculture, The Guardian journalists take the analysis beyond the problems into the causes, diving into the question: Why are these conditions so systemic and pervasive?

Here, again, are some extended excerpts from the article, with the authors’ attempts to answer that question:

… Supermarkets and their suppliers cite their use of certifications that are intended to reassure consumers that the goods we buy are produced under legal labour practices. But as these stories demonstrate, such figleaves are totally unreliable, and simply make the consumer unwittingly complicit: those purchasing Italian produce are unaware that their healthy Mediterranean diet is, sometimes, the fruit of 21st-century slavery…


… In April 2014, an auction [by supermarkets] for tomatoes was in progress. In Naples, a manufacturer of tomato products called Francesco Franzese stared at his computer screen in consternation as the price dropped. He was managing director of La Fiammante, a company based on the slopes of Vesuvius, which sold tinned tomatoes, passata and purée. What he saw shocked him. The tomato-growing season hadn’t even begun, but a supermarket chain was inviting a supply price for 20m tins of tomatoes. Franzese was logged on to the online portal, and every time a rival company lowered their price, a two-minute timer started.

“It was like a game,” he told us, “and you had to keep going lower to stay in it. It was the only auction that I had seen going downwards. You didn’t even know if the other bids were real, or just a way to force down the price.”

Franzese knew the figures didn’t add up. The prices rival companies were offering to sell for had to be, he calculated, below their costs. “To produce a tin of tomatoes,” he told us, “certain expenses are out of your control: the price of tin, energy and water costs and so on. The only place you can squeeze savings are in labour costs. The only place.” He decided not to participate in the auction. “In accepting these industrial prices,” he said, “we’re actually selling the skin of the farm-workers.”…

… Given that supermarkets are sourcing their oranges and tomatoes from crime-ridden areas of southern Italy, one might expect them to be circumspect about their suppliers. But they lack the instruments, or willingness, to probe deeply into where their products are sourced. Both UK and Italian supermarkets defend themselves by the blanket use of Certification Bodies (CBs): these are companies paid by supermarket suppliers to provide an ethical audit of their businesses, thereby offering assurance that their goods meet environmental or humanitarian standards.

But CBs perform an arm’s-length box-ticking exercise, and rarely visit the farms. Besides, many farms are so remote that it is hard to launch a raid or surprise inspection. We spoke to one volunteer medic, working in the fields in Sicily, who says that to avoid any surprises, big farms have lookouts on mopeds at the ends of very long tracks. Some inspectors can be paid off, and those who do their job with integrity have been threatened with violence.

Global Gap (an inspectorate for good agricultural practice founded in 1997 by retailers) is an organisation that has patented one methodology for such audits. But under the Global Gap method, only the square root of the total number of farms used by a processing plant is inspected (ie if there are 100 farms supplying a plant, only 10 will be inspected). There’s no element of surprise – the general regulations of Global Gap state that “The following is true for unannounced inspections: the CB may inform the producer in advance of the intended visit.”

Almost all CBs attract business by boasting that they provide “reputational preservation” or “risk awareness”. They exist primarily to shore up a good name rather than root out and reveal bad practice. There is a conflict of interest, since the cost of certification is met not by the supermarkets, but by the clients – an agricultural producer or processor. “When the person being inspected is the same person paying the inspector’s fee, 99.9% of the time the inspector will say: ‘No, you’re not exploiting anyone’,” said Aboubakar Soumahoro, of the USB grassroots union. It is, he says, a racket: “The story just doesn’t stand up.” One major CB told us, off the record: “We audit remotely. We rely on the documentation our customers supply.”…

… The absurdity of the certification process was revealed in 2015, when a 47-year-old Sudanese immigrant, Abdullah Muhammed, was working on a tomato farm in Nardò in Puglia. Labouring without breaks, and with limited water, he suffered a heart attack and died. No medical assistance was available. It was his first day of work; he had arrived from Sicily the day before.

The farm was owned by Giuseppe Mariano, who had previously been caught up in an investigation into caporalato, and who had been using a Sudanese gangmaster. Using drones and wiretaps, an investigating magistrate, Paola Guglielmi, discovered that the farm was supplying processing plants owned by two of the biggest names in the Italian tomato industry, Mutti and Cirio…

… Cirio, which is owned by Conserve Italia, told the Guardian: “[We] would like to assure all… consumers that it will continue to process tomatoes supplied by its 14,000 cooperators through the collaboration of its 3,000 employees in complete respect of ethical principles and environmental sustainability.”

The cure?  Fair Food for Europe.

The parallels between the European agricultural industry and the tomato fields of Florida, circa 2010, are too stark to be ignored: Fields plagued with persistent, horrifying cases of forced labor; routine incidents of sexual violence; back-breaking work for poverty wages.  The underlying, driving force behind the abuse is likewise painfully familiar: A food industry composed of consolidated food retailers leveraging their volume purchases to drive down prices and working conditions, while papering over the resulting abuses with ineffective simulacra of supply chain monitoring systems.

Against the bleak backdrop of the conditions farmworkers face every day across Europe, and what seems to be an intractably broken legal system, it may seem hard to find cause for optimism.  But there just might be some hope on the horizon for Italy and Spain’s agricultural workers.  Through the Fair Food Program, farmworkers in the U.S. have blazed a path out of the antiquated, exploitative agricultural industry of the 20th century (and 19th century, and 18th century, for that matter) and now have proof of concept that with the right mechanisms – harnessing worker leadership and the transformative power of the market – change is in fact possible.  The agricultural industry of the 21st century – whether here in the U.S. or across the Atlantic Ocean – does not have to be rooted in sexual abuse, abject poverty, or modern day slavery. 

In even better news, there is already swiftly-growing interest in collaboration with the Fair Food Program from leading thinkers, organizers and practitioners on the ground in Europe, who are seeking a new model to lift the agricultural industry out of the abuse and exploitation in which it has been mired for so long.  A partnership, hopefully sooner than later, may be on the horizon.  We will be sure to keep you posted!

In the meantime, please do take the time to head over to The Guardian‘s website to read both of these articles in full.  They are the product of months of tremendously important work by intrepid reporters, and are an important window into the lives of women and men laboring in the global agricultural supply chain.  Once again, you can find the article on Italian tomatoes here, and the article on the Spanish strawberry industry here.