Labour without law: Migrant food workers in Italy

In the ghettos

Buildings usually express the position of households in society: castles for kings and aristocrats, luxurious palazzi and villas for landlords, shabby farmsteads for farmworkers.

Since the majority of the Italian population have moved to urban areas, agricultural fields are now populated mostly by edifices for machines and animals, as well as ghettos for migrant (often undocumented) workers – camps that can host, hundreds to several thousands of people, according to the different harvesting seasons. Within these ‘ghettos’ there is often no running water and dozens of people are forced to inhabit shacks made of plastic and metal. In normal times, these ghettos are an awful denial of human dignity, yet in the current context of COVID-19 they represent a threat to human life. This tragedy, however, is not recent, and it happens as a result of a long and articulated combination of problems.

In agriculture, the structure of the supply chain is technically dependent on the kind of crops produced and traded: tomatoes, oranges and watermelons have the longest supply chain because there is a high degree of offer fragmentation, the product is seasonal and perishable with small possibility of storage, and the distance between the places of production and consumption is often big. These crops thus require a very large workforce working for a rather short period of time, which implies complex logistics and organisation of the means of production.

Moreover, commercial (often transnational) businesses, acting as intermediaries or final buyers – the big supermarket chains – are able to put strong pressure on national and local agricultural producers for the price of their produces. Such buyer power in the agro-food supply chain reaches peak indecency with the practice of the so-called double reverse electronic auctions: the suppliers of the large-scale purchasing centres ask producers to make them via email an offer for the sale of a product stock. Once the proposals have been collected, they launch a second auction, starting from the lower price reached during the first. In a few minutes, the suppliers compete online to win the bid. Thus, suppliers who win the auction with the lowest price guarantee their margin of revenue at the expense of producers, whose costs of production are then cut at the expense of farmworkers.

This system functions as long as producers are able to find a workforce capable of maintaining these costs of production. With data from 2017, “Placido Rizzotto Observatory” establishes that in Italy illegal work is worth 77 billion euros, equal to 37.3% of all non-observed economy. The incidence of irregular work in agriculture is worth 4.8 billion euros. 39% of employment in agriculture is irregular, and around 430,000 workers are exposed to the risk of irregular engagement, while more than 132,000 are in conditions of serious social vulnerability. 286,940 agricultural workers are migrants – 151,706 from the EU and 135,234 from non-EU countries. Including estimates on undeclared work, circa 405,000 foreign people work in agriculture altogether, among whom 67,000 have an informal employment relationship, and 157,000 get a salary lower than the ones established by collective agreements. There are estimated 30,000 farms that hired workers irregularly throughout the national territory.

The conditions of work are awful. Workers are subject to exploitation and lack any protection guaranteed by labour law, working on average 8-12 hours per day out in the sun or in the rain, receiving around 20 to 30 euros per day, or payment by piece for a fee of 3-4 euros for a box of produce weighing more than 300 kilos. Women usually receive a 20% lower salary, and in the most serious cases of exploitation, some migrants receive a salary of 1 euro per hour. Furthermore, such workers not only have to pay their gangmaster part of their salary as a commission, but they also need to pay them for the transport to the fields, for basic necessities (water and a sandwich) and for the accommodation (a mattress in a derelict sordid farmstead).

In this economic endeavour, migrant farmworkers (and especially those who are undocumented) represent for producers a massive and docile reserve army. They are far from family networks, isolated and segregated from the rest of society – often in a spiral of institutional racism – and unaware of terms and conditions of work established by law and collective agreements. Illegal migrants are also blackmailed to be reported and deported.

Without concrete housing and social inclusion policy put in place by local or national authorities, migrant workers who are required to move around Italy according to the harvest season have no other option than ghettos, slums and abandoned farmsteads. These at least offer the possibility to live in large groups and in proximity to the fields, so that the chances to be picked by gangmasters and get to work are higher. Moreover, for many, ghettos represent a rare opportunity of socialisation as well as escapism, with the selling of alcohol, drugs and sex usually controlled by criminal organisations.

The law as a problem?

In such an aberrant system, the law assumes a perverse role. Laws concerning labour and migration are the result of the existing ‘material Constitution’ and political context, two elements that have been radically changing in Italy during the last 70 years.

Inspired by full employment and social protection, the statutory regulation of the labour market after fascist corporatism was based on two pillars: a strong intervention of the state in employment policies and the criminal ban on any intermediation and interposition of work. But the public monopoly of job placement established in the 1940s – and reinforced also by the criminalisation of the intermediation and interposition of work – ceased with the first big neoliberal reform of labour law in 1996, which opened the Italian market to corporations like Manpower or Adecco.

In recent years, several reforms brought about a de facto decriminalization of all forms of intermediation: as a consequence, many more companies find it financially convenient to resort to forms of irregular intermediations: there are little possibility to get fined, and even so, the saving from not paying minimum wages, taxes and social contributions can easily be higher than the fines.

Even the industrial relations system is problematic. The agriculture sector has more than thirty sectoral collective agreements in force, and some of them are ‘pirate agreements’. These distorting effects of labour law are aggravated by restrictive immigration policies for the entry of non-EU migrants – based on an underestimated quota – which triggers the vicious circle of ‘small quota / irregular entries / undeclared work’. Here then we see that provincialism and globalisation weigh on the bodies of migrant farmworkers, who remain victims of a system characterized by exploitation, violence, silence, discrimination, organised crime and the absence of the state or public welfare – an existential subordination to the gangmasters who control their work as well as their lives.

The institutional racism engraved in immigration rules, especially in the reforms of the first Conte Government supported by Lega, had its own criminogenic effect: it pushed hundreds of thousands of migrants out of the law, leaving them ‘clandestine’ and (consequently?) used by politicians to harvest votes as well as by gangmasters to harvest crops.

Yet in the context of the pandemic, in order to cope with an estimated shortfall of about 370.000 person in Italian fields, the Government has decided to ‘regularise’ the status of irregular migrants: employers can now, without the fear of sanctions, ‘transform’ undeclared workers into regular ones endowed with a work permit. Moreover, third-country nationals who have worked in agriculture and who have been in Italy without a valid residence permit since October 2019, can apply for a six-month residence permit to look for a job. These provisions are positive, but it is very unlikely that it will challenge gangmasters or solve structural problems. First, the law does not give anything to migrant workers who are in irregular employment: the power to regularise the employment relationship still remains in the hands of the employer who will likely decide based on an economic calculation; and without any corresponding incentives or any major investments in the labour inspection system, it is unclear how employers can refrain from using irregular work.

The residence permit to look for a job is a measure that makes some good sense, but the six-months expiration date attached to it is outrageous: is the legislature saying that, in six months, tomatoes will be saved but workers and their human rights can easily go back to rot in the fields? The logic of the decree, suggesting that migrants are eligible only for work in agriculture and care, follows the logic of the ‘useful foreigner’, ‘rewarded’ with temporary access to basic human rights only insofar as they are necessary for the economy.


The agricultural sector in Italy rests on a form of work organization that overlooks the contract of employment and its protection statutes. Instead it is based on the spirit of subjugation via the insecure status of workers – socially excluded, legally weak and politically irrelevant. This offers a disciplinary system that perfectly meets the needs of the agro-food industry.

The political reduction and violent commodification of migrants removes from them needs, desires and abilities, as well as the possibility to take collective action. Recent history is full of examples of the mobilisation of migrant workers: just to name a few, the strikes in Rosarno in 2010, the 2011 ‘Nardò uprising’ (a two-month strike held by migrant workers led by Yvan Sagnet which led to the conviction of dozens of gangmasters for slavery and the adoption of new laws), and the big strike on 21 May 2020 against the regularisation implemented by the Government.

This resistance needs to overcome the fragmentation imposed by the supply chain and build solidarity links among workers engaged in its various links – from the couriers in logistics companies, to the waiters in restaurants, or the cashiers in the supermarkets where revenues for big retailers have skyrocketed whilst workers’ salaries remain low. These mobilisations should join the struggles of workers in other sectors affected by precarity and exploitation, such as care, academia, construction and manufacturing, as well as climate activists, since food and agriculture are pivotal in the ecological transition.

In his masterpiece Fontamara, Ignazio Silone wrote: “At the head of everything is God, the Lord of Heaven. Everyone knows that. Then comes Prince Torlonia, lord of the earth. Then come Prince Torlonia’s guards. Then come Prince Torlonia’s guard’s dogs. Then, nothing at all. Then, nothing at all. Then, nothing at all. Then come the cafoni [the peasant class]. And that’s all.” Only once we have managed to turn this state of affairs upside down, “we can sanction it with new laws. It is time to invoke the Widerstandsrecht, the right of resistance”.


Vincenzo Pietrogiovanni is Associate Professor at Department of Business Law, Lund University.

Image credit: Claus Bunks via Wikimedia Commons