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Labour exploitation in the agricultural sector

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When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: Whose?"
(Don Marquis)

Employment in the Italian agricultural sector is characterized by a prevalence of precarious and short-term employment relationships and an increase in seasonal work. In such context, migrant workers constitute a potential basin for the supply of underpaid and unqualified labour, due to their specific conditions of vulnerability (scarce knowledge of the labour protection instruments, unfit accommodation, distance from worksites, etc.). Indeed, the drop in the number of agricultural workers over the decades has gone hand in hand with an exponential increase in the presence of migrant workers, by now considered indispensable for the maintenance and actual existence of the agricultural sector. In fact, ISTAT estimates that foreign workers employed in the sector are 18% (compared to 10% for the economy as a whole): these are mainly workers of non-EU citizenship, 12.5% on the overall workforce in the sector [ISTAT– 2021].

A considerable amount of said basin results to be hired irregularly, through the so-called "gang master system" (caporalato): an expression that refers to illegal labour intermediation, workers' irregular recruitment and organization, and labour exploitation (mainly) in the agricultural sector.

The so-called gang masters (caporali) act as intermediaries for employers recruiting workers outside the normal employment channels and without respecting the minimum contractual wages, withholding for themselves part of the pay (a sort of bribery). A crucial aspect of the phenomenon concerns the monopoly of the transport system, even obliging farm workers to pay their transfer to their worksites.

Such intermediation is present when there is a wide gap between agricultural holdings and individuals in search of a job, and when it is particularly complicated to organize work which is to be carried out in teams. Often, the gang master system results to be the only organizational mechanism capable of filling that structural gap between labour demand and supply.

The official data provide a partial picture of the progressive increase in the number of foreign workers involved in the agricultural sector, as said data concern only workers regularly employed. Therefore, the statistics do not include a consistent number of workers totally lacking contractual protection (the so-called "undeclared employment" – "lavoro nero") and workers with a partial contractual protection (the so-called "under declared employment" "lavoro grigio"). In the latter case, farm workers are formally hired, but employers report to the Social Security Agency fewer days of employment than those actually worked.

There are no official data on the phenomenon, but according to ISTAT estimates, irregular work in agriculture has been growing steadily over the last ten years, reaching a value of 24.4%, almost double compared to the economy as a whole (12 %) [ISTAT - 2020]

According to the estimates of the VI Report of the Placido Rizzotto Observatory of the FLAI-CGIL (November 2022), in 2021 there were around 230 thousand workers employed illegally in agriculture, and of these 55 thousand are women. Irregular subordinate agricultural work is particularly accentuated in Puglia, Sicily, Campania, Calabria and Lazio with rates exceeding 40%, but widespread irregularities are also found in the Centre-North, a phenomenon that of irregular work in the fields which is shown in further growth compared to the 180,000 units indicated in the previous report based on a conservative estimate.



Cognitive Investigation

 Three-year Plan (2020 – 2022)


 National Guidelines on identification, protection and assistance to victims of labour exploitation in agriculture