Companies sourcing Italian tomatoes urged: 'Make yourselves known'

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Photo credit: Istock / Federico Rostagno
Photo credit: Istock / Federico Rostagno

Related tags: Supply chains, Italy, European union

Following revelations of gross exploitation of workers in the Italian tomato processing industry, the Ethical Trading Initiative is asking food manufacturers to map their supply chains - but Princes is the only one to come forward so far. 

Migrant tomato pickers in Italy endure appalling living and working conditions, working very long hours and being paid 40% less than legal minimum thresholds, according to a report​ published last week by the Ethical Trade Initiative Norway (IEH), in collaboration with its sister organisations in the UK (ETI) and Denmark (DIEH). This exploitation takes place at the hands of the Caporali​ - illegal gang masters who o hire migrant workers to harvest tomatoes on Italian farms.

Nick Kightley, ETI’s food and farming adviser, told FoodNavigator: “Food companies need to trace back their supply chains to get a better understanding of what is going on and make their expectations clear.

He said all of the major UK grocery retailers, as well as retailers in Norway and Denmark, had “committed to driving through the necessary changes” ​to establish decent working conditions in their supply chains. However, as yet, only one manufacturer - UK-based food and drink group Princes - is taking the issue seriously, according to Kightley.

“I would be surprised if others are not aware that this exploitation is happening, but we have not had any response from other processors. I would like to see a much more positive reaction from processors: they are the ones who are committed in their business models to working in Italy so we would expect them to be actively involved in understanding the working practices,​ he said.

Princes speaks out

A spokesperson from Princes said the company welcomed and supported the efforts of ETI.

“We specify in our contracts that suppliers must meet all legal obligations in relation to the labour used in the supply of tomatoes, such as the observance of collective and individual employment contracts and welfare rights, including only using workers that are compliant with all legislation affecting the industry,​ said the company in a statement.

Whilst Italy accounts for 50% of the European Union’s overall production of processed tomatoes, not all manufacturers admit to sourcing tomatoes from this origin.

Heinz, another major user of tomatoes, told this publication: “Our main sources of supply include Spain, Portugal and California. And our code of conduct demands that all business partners demonstrate a clear commitment to protecting the rights of workers worldwide.

The report recommended that European retailers should map their supply chains, and perform a due diligence assessment of their direct suppliers - the processing companies making the tomato products.

Follow the retailer example

Kightley recommended that food manufacturers using Italian tomato products should take a similar course of action.

“Manufacturers should be reaching out to local organisations - cooperatives who consolidate produce and associations of producers - that is how they can find out what is going in on in the communities,​he said.

Any findings from audits and other assessments should be addressed through action plans, whose effectiveness and impact can be monitored with help of local trade unions or NGOs, said ETI.

The plight of migrant tomato industry workers first came under the spotlight in autumn 2013, when the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten​ launched a campaign focused on the exploitation of migrant workers hired for harvesting tomatoes and other crops in southern Italy.

Following this media scrutiny, Norwegian food retailers initiated a project under the umbrella of the Ethical Trading Initiative Norway (IEH). The project is carried out in collaboration with ETI in the UK and DIEH in Denmark.

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