Report about Italian tomato industry reveals appaling situation of immigrant workers

The silent drama of Indian migrant farmers in Italy is something that should concern the sector deeply, writes Doro Schreier on

The vast agricultural plains of Agro-Pontino in central Italy are one of the country's main areas for food production, and tens of thousands of Sikhs from Punjab in northern India are exploited here. Balbir Singh is one of them. For six years, he lived in slave-like conditions herding livestock in Latina Province, a rural area south of Rome where tens of thousands of Indian migrant workers like him live. 

The vast agricultural plains of the Agro-Pontino in central Italy are now one of the country's main areas for food production. However, this was not always the case. This 100-mile stretch of land overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea was marshland until a century ago when fascist dictator Benito Mussolini organized a mass migration from northern Italy to drain the swamps and turn them into fertile farmland. But many of those who live there today are not Italians, they are Indians. They are abused and exploited by both for-profit agribusiness and organized crime - they work for miserable wages, often without official papers, and are trapped in a system from which there is no escape, the report reads. Today, between 25,000 and 30,000 Indians live and work in the region, according to Marco Omizzolo, the well-known activist who helped to free Singh.

The mild climate of the Italian countryside is ideal for growing a variety of fruits and vegetables that require warmer climates to grow well. For example, Italy exports $2.14 billion worth of processed tomatoes per year. However, the fact that Italian tomatoes are sold for relatively low prices gave rise to questions. 

Paola Totaro, a well-known Italian-Australian journalist, set out to find out why tomatoes from Italy can be so cheap. For The Australian, she revealed the shocking truth under the title: 'Slave labor' behind red gold. Paola found out that the Mafia uses slave labor for canned tomatoes, which are then sold cheaply.

The working conditions that journalists found were unimaginable, and they remain unchanged: The wage is 3.50 euros for 75 kilograms of tomatoes, which can take hours before they are bottled. Working hours can be from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. in temperatures exceeding 40 hours with no shade and no breaks. Joint research by the U.K., Danish and Norwegian Ethical Trading Initiatives has also reported on seasonal workers living in extreme poverty, often without running water and sanitation, forced to live in abandoned buildings or tent cities, and with little access to health care.

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