African migrants shown harvesting oranges in Rosarno, Reggio Calabria. Credit: ANSA/ Franco Cufari
African migrants shown harvesting oranges in Rosarno, Reggio Calabria. Credit: ANSA/ Franco Cufari

Migrant agricultural workers in some parts of southern Italy are "enduring extreme levels of labor exploitation and coercion, and inhumane working and living conditions," the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery Urmila Bhoola said after a 10-day visit to Italy. The rapporteur said that she was concerned about the fact that the basic needs of workers for water, sanitation and healthcare were not being met in informal settlements she visited.

Bhoola said it was a serious indictment that workers who generate billions of euros in agricultural exports are forced to live in shantytowns and work up to 14 hours a day. ''It raises serious questions about whether enough is being done to ensure the human rights and human dignity of migrant workers who are indispensable to Italy's agro-economy," Bhoola said. It is estimated that more than 400,000 agricultural workers in Italy risk being exploited and almost 100,000 likely face inhumane conditions. 

During her visit, the independent expert met Government officials, employer associations and trade unions, as well as exploited workers. She also visited farms, a temporary reception centre (CAS) for migrants, formal accommodation centres for migrant workers in Calabria, Apulia and Latina and the informal settlements of Borgo Mezzanone (Foggia) and of San Ferdinando (Calabria).

Conditions found by the UN rapporteur

She noted that the informal settlements are far from farms and city centres and with no public transport, workers are exploited by caporali, private labour intermediaries who also provide transport. "The caporalato system consists not only of labour brokers who supply irregular and regular migrants to farms but it is also said to be underpinned by a network of criminal syndicates and mafia groups who benefit from the exploitation in slavery-like conditions of migrant workers," Bhoola said.

Most of the workers are from Sub Saharan Africa, but in Latina province about 30,000 Sikh workers from India are subjected to extreme forms of coercion, including being forced to take performance-enhancing drugs - prohibited by their religion - so they could work the 10-14 hour days in the fields. 

Other forms of coercion included physical and sexual violence or threats of violence, withholding of wages and documents, and threats to their families in their countries of origin if they refused to continue doing the illegal work, the Special Rapporteur said. She commended Italy for amending its Penal Code in 2016 to prohibit caporalato and provide severe penalties for violations both by employers and caporali who exploit poor workers. 

Enforcement of this law, as well as increased prevention, protection and identification of victims and perpetrators, is key to addressing the human rights violations of migrant workers, she said. 

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