The hidden cost: migrant exploitation, supermarkets and the power of ethical consumption

A guest post by Giulia Mori, current student in our 2022-23 MPP cohort

The Italian agricultural sector relies heavily on migrant workers, who accounted for almost 400,000 workers in 2020, corresponding to more than 30% of Italy’s agricultural labour force.

Migrants working in the Italian fields (braccianti, or ‘a pair of arms’) are subjected to exploitation and abuse and are often trapped in the mafia-like system of caporalato, a phenomenon that involves the recruitment and exploitation of migrant workers by criminal organisations in the agricultural sector.

How the ‘caporalato’ system works

Recruitment of migrant workers usually takes place through intermediaries known as caporali, who often used to be migrant workers themselves. It has been estimated that approximately 25% of Italian agribusinesses employ caporali, and this widespread phenomenon extends beyond the southern regions of Italy. These intermediaries are responsible for recruiting and transporting migrant workers from informal settlements, where migrants live in deplorable conditions, lacking access to essential services such as water, sanitation, and healthcare. Within this exploitative system, labour rights violations are the norm, including excessive working hours ranging from 8 to 14 hours per day, seven days a week, coupled with meagre wages as low as 1 to 4 euros per hour. Additionally, if they wish to work, migrants are forced to pay for transportation services provided by the caporali. Physical and psychological violence is common as well, with women facing even more abuse, receiving lower wages compared to men and becoming victims of sexual violence and exploitation.

The role of supermarkets

While caporalato plays a decisive role in the exploitation of migrant workers in the Italian agricultural sector, supermarket chains are also complicit in this abusive system. These major retailers often place pressure on suppliers to offer low prices, resulting in cost-cutting measures such as the employment of vulnerable migrant workers who are subjected to extremely low wages and deplorable working conditions. A notable example lies within the tomato industry, a staple product consumed widely in Italy and exported throughout Europe. The insatiable demand for tomatoes at rock-bottom prices by supermarkets directly contributes to the exploitation of migrant workers involved in their production.

A way forward

As consumers, we possess the power to demand change through our purchasing decisions. By recognising the hidden costs behind supermarket products, we can actively contribute to eradicating the exploitation of migrant workers and support ethical and transparent supply chains:

“No Cap” label. Source: Associazione No Cap

✅ We can be more conscious about what is the reason behind the low price of the product we are purchasing. In some cases, certifications can help us make more conscious choices. In Italy, for instance, the label “No Cap” provides assurance that the goods have been produced respecting workers’ rights and in an environmentally sustainable manner.

✅ We can exert pressure on supermarket chains by reaching out to them, urging transparency regarding their ethical production policies and demanding evidence that they are not contributing to labour exploitation. Following this demand by consumers, some Italian supermarkets are already moving in this direction.

✅ Opting for products from smaller local suppliers further reduces the likelihood of exploitation, as local suppliers often maintain closer relationships with their workers. Moreover, small-scale local suppliers tend to engage in more environmentally-sustainable practices compared to larger companies.

In general, as consumers, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the origins of the items we buy – it is important to know whether these products are associated with labour exploitation.

Joining forces for change

Our individual action is vital, but addressing the systemic issue of migrant workers’ exploitation in the Italian agricultural sector requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach.

The Italian government has already implemented measures aimed at combating caporalato, but these have proved to be quite ineffective. Italy should implement more structural measures, provide greater protections for migrant workers who face exploitation, and create an effective monitoring mechanism. Moreover, supermarkets should be held accountable for their role in enabling the exploitation of migrant workers. Civil society organisations and consumers play a pivotal role by engaging with supermarkets, demanding transparency and ethical practices.

By working together, we can produce a powerful force to promote fairness and justice in the agricultural sector, and we can create an environment where the exploitation of migrant workers is no longer tolerated.


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    The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.


    Photo by Lance Cheung (USDA) on Flickr