The Plight of Italy’s Agricultural Workers
How increasingly hotter summers have turned the country’s agricultural fields into a battleground for those trying to make a living, while struggling to stay alive.
by Giada Santana and Claudia Colliva
On a cool Saturday morning in early December, Moussa, a young man from Mali, sits outside his local coffee shop, at a worn-down wooden table held up by shaky legs. He is in the central avenue of Borgo Mezzanone, the largest shanty town in Italy, home to approximately 4000 men and women with migrant backgrounds. The coffee shop is little more than a shack made of corrugated metal sheets, with a Bunsen burner to heat pots of water and a small fridge storing soft drinks. All around, an array of similar shacks compose the improvised settlement. Most of the residents are agricultural workers, earning a living on one of the many fields that extend around the camp.
Moussa’s weekdays look very different from this. He heads out to go to work on a nearby field at around 6am, and often doesn’t come home until the sun is setting. Every summer since he emigrated to Italy from Mali in 2008, he has worked on grape farms, with temperatures reaching upwards of 40 degrees. According to the law, his shifts should not go over 6 hours and 40 minutes, but he often has to work longer, to finish grape rows. Most companies encourage workers to stay the extra hours, even if it means working in the hottest hours of the day, with no shade or repair, says Moussa. The only water he and all the other men working alongside him have access to is whatever they can take with them in their own water bottles. Breaks are inconceivable. “For Italians yes, but not for Africans,” says Moussa, quoting what he was told by his employer.
Dry to the Bone: The Dehydration in Italy’s Fields
In Italy’s fields, workers experience high levels of dehydration. In particular those who live in slums, where access to water is limited. In Borgo Mezzanone, residents rely on local authorities to refill the large water tanks located on either end of the town. The tank trucks, however, only come once every few days, and in the summer months, during which heat waves are a constant, the high temperatures and stifling humidity make the wait almost unbearable, as tanks empty out quicker than usual.
Last year’s summer was Italy’s second hottest in recorded history, outdone only by 2003. And yet the country’s agricultural fields and greenhouses were stacked with workers, most of them young men like Moussa. They picked tomatoes, grapes, cherries, and strawberries, just like every other summer, so that they could end up on Italian supermarket shelves, in open contradiction with recommendations from the World Health Organization.
In the Province of Foggia, a field doctor operating within the smaller slum of San Severo, witnessed a case of dehydration so severe it impacted the bones of the patient. Repeated field work in exceedingly high temperatures with limited access to water meant that the worker was running out of liquids inside his bones, and experiencing severe joint pain as a result.
Even if not all cases are of this gravity, agricultural workers remain among those most at risk during heat waves, and in summer more broadly, according to doctor Norberto Perico. Because the body’s internal temperature is already higher than usual due to physical exertion, high external temperatures put it under a strain so excessive that it can be terminal for vulnerable individuals. Long exposure to heat can lead to a wide range of conditions, from heart attack to kidney failure, respiratory and muscular diseases. “When one is exposed to these conditions every day, even if consequences are not immediately apparent,” says Perico, “they can manifest progressively within months, or even years, and cause chronic damages.”
The Lives Behind “Made in Italy” Produce
As an NGO community leader, Maria Iftimoaiea has witnessed the degradation of the health of many of the female agricultural workers she supports. Maria herself is an agricultural worker. She first left Romania with her husband in 2014, when they started their journey to Italy on a bus, with few belongings and a total of five euros in their pockets. “I have always been a warrior. That’s why I have never given up,” says Maria. Now, she works for the NGO ActionAid. Her role consists in acting as a point of reference for 145 female agricultural workers in two of Puglia’s Provinces. When gathering testimonies, and providing support, she is often overcome by anger and disbelief at what the women tell her. “Portable toilets do not exist in the fields,” she says, “and even with 40 degrees, people work, regardless of regional provisions.”
Italy’s agri-food sector employs over 3.5 million people. Of these, nearly 20% are immigrants, predominantly from non-EU countries, for the most part residing in Italy irregularly, a fact that makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation. A 2021 report by the Italian Ministry of Labour highlighted the precarious working and living conditions of these individuals. An estimated 10,000 live in one of Italy’s 150 shanty towns, like the one in which Moussa resides, without reliable access to electricity or running water.
On the heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia stands out as the region with the highest number of such settlements, twelve in total, hosting up to seven thousand residents overall. The majority are agricultural workers from Sub-Saharan Africa, most of which have lost their visas after a tightening of Italy’s immigration laws.
According to the OECD, Italy ranks as one of the worst countries in Europe when it comes to immigrant living conditions. Information regarding their health, however, is scarce. So far, the Italian State has refused to carry out a comprehensive medical study on the health conditions of agricultural workers, despite calls to action from researchers like Marco Omizzolo.
Omizzolo spent part of his life undercover as an agricultural worker, and wrote numerous essays and books about their conditions of paraslavery. A few years ago, he kickstarted a conversation with the National Institute of Health, eager to work on a study on the health conditions of migrant workers and their access to sanitary services. Despite his efforts, nothing came out of it. “There is serious inaction and distance on the part of the government when it comes to this issue,” says the researcher.
Government Inaction: The Consequences of an Institutional Vacuum
In Italy, the responsibility to carry out inspections and ascertain that workers are accurately safeguarded falls upon the National Inspectorate of Labor (INL) and regional medical entities named SPESALs. INL, however, counts around 2000 inspectors nationally. Similarly, most SPESALs are understaffed and underfunded.
Doctor Addolorata Arsa is an employee of the SPESAL of Foggia. “We are really doing our best, despite being just a few,” she says. With a mere twelve inspectors available, her SPESAL completed around one-hundred inspections in 2022. In the Province of Taranto, where Maria lives and works, inspections were barely half that number. Nationally, nearly 60% of agricultural companies that underwent inspection in 2019 presented some sort of irregularity.
Three Italian regions, including Puglia, have banned agricultural work between 12h30 and 4 pm in the summer, after extensive lobbying by the largest trade union of agricultural workers in Italy: FLAI-CGIL. However, as Maria and other operatives on the ground confirm, many employers disregard the new regulations.
Workers are also rather reluctant to become whistleblowers. According to Arsa, accidents caused by heat stress often go unreported due to the fact that most day laborers do not have a regular contract. Last summer, two victims died of heart failure while working in fields, but authorities ended up closing the investigations on both cases. “It is difficult to draw a correlation with working conditions,” says Arsa.
Thanks to a 2022 pilot project, the doctor and her team visited 150 seasonal workers. Half of them presented heart conditions that made them unfit for the job. Overall, lack of oversight enables employers to remain indifferent to the health conditions of their workers, disregarding, for instance, the option of furloughing them in cases where temperatures exceed 35°C, as the law would allow.
Across Italy, the phenomenon of irregular work also seems to be growing: in 2o2o, irregular workers were estimated to be 50 thousand less than they were in 2021. Some argue that it is up to individuals to drive demand towards sustainable products. Jean-Renè Bilongo, head of the FLAI Observatory, disagrees. “You cannot put the responsibility to act on consumers,” he says, “it’s the State in its ramifications that has to intervene.”
The Supply Chain of Exploitation
The demand for competitive prices often pushes agricultural companies in a fight over who can offer the lowest price, and worker safety is the first cost many decide to cut. Vito Merra, the head of one the local branches of the Italian Confederation of Farmers (CIA) in Puglia, says most producers in his Confederation have a very rudimentary educational background and more than limited understanding of the market. Many find themselves locked into sales deals with large food distributors and supermarket chains that impose untenably low prices on their products, forcing them into desperate attempts to cut costs in whichever way they can. More often than not, the brunt of these cuts falls on those at the very bottom of the supply chain: the workers.
According to Merra, one of the largest obstacles standing in the way of farmers in his Province is their inability to organize themselves into cooperatives, which would enable them to negotiate prices as a collective, and hence with significantly more bargaining power than they have as single units. He blames ignorance and an entrenched culture of individualism. Nicola Cantatore, representative of the Italian Confederation of Farmers for the Foggia Province, confirms this. “It’s true of all the supply chains,” he says. “There are some improvements in the tomato chain, where we can identify a few consortiums of farmers, but not much.”
More than Just an Italian Problem
Despite Italy ranking first for agricultural added value in Europe, the issue of heat stress for workers is a continent-wide problem. No EU member State has comprehensive regulation catered towards protecting workers from excessively high temperatures. Irregular employment remains a standing issue too, with 32% of seasonal agricultural workers in the continent lacking a contract, according to the European Platform Tackling Undeclared Work. The absence of work contracts subjects workers to precarity and limits their access to what little protection from exploitation the law can offer. Even for those employed legally, however, exposure to heat in Europe’s fields is becoming a growing problem.
Until things change, those suffering under the weight of this system look for relief and escape in whichever way they can. Maria remains entrenched in her work as community leader. She has built a life for herself and her family in the beachside town of Ginosa Marina, one that she hopes will grant her daughter, currently attending the local high school, a better life than the one she had. Moussa, on the other hand, took his chances and left.
Through a connection, he was able to find living arrangements in Bassano del Grappa, a small city in Veneto, in the North of Italy. On the 11th of February, at 10:35pm, he finally boarded his train out of Foggia, and by mid-morning the next day he was in Verona. Since arriving, he has also been able to find employment as a welder. The move, however, did not come without sacrifices. Moussa had to leave his only family in Italy, his uncle, behind, and along with him, many friends and colleagues. “Eighty percent of the people remain in Borgo Mezzanone,” he says. “I have made it out alone, with only God on my side.”