Labour Exploitation In Agriculture

Diana Hawkins, Founder & CEO, Responsible Hedonist

In 2020, a labour scandal shocked the agricultural world. A farm magnate in Puglia, Italy was put under house arrest and accused of illegally exploiting his migrant workers using caporalato, a system where intermediaries recruit migrants to work on large farms during harvest.

These immigrants are predominantly from Eastern Europe and Northern Africa. They are often paid low wages, expected to work long hours, and housed in poor conditions. Because the workers are often there illegally, they have little protection under law.

Worker exploitation is nothing new in the agricultural sector, including in vineyards. However, consumers and importers are becoming aware of these labor issues - and they’re demanding change. With the new year approaching, let’s take stock to see what, if anything, has been done to address their concerns.

Co-ordinated actions

In September 2021, Europol supported an operation specifically aimed at bringing exploitative vineyard and farm producers to justice.

Progress made in 2021:

  • 54 suspected traffickers identified across Europe

  • 269 possible victims identified, 81 of which were potentially trafficked

  • 12 arrests

  • A €5 million criminal network was dismantled

Wildfires and heatwaves

Too often when climate disasters strike vineyards, the media focuses on the loss of grapes and income for producers. That is a very real issue and one that shouldn’t be minimised, but what is often ignored are the challenges faced by marginalised workers on the ground. Last year, they were sent to work in dangerous conditions, and this year, at least two died from working during heatwaves in the USA.

This is happening because:

  • Some employers send workers into fire zones to harvest grapes in the hopes of recouping their losses;

  • These workers are often undocumented, making them ineligible for unemployment benefits, insurance, or disaster assistance, which means if they aren’t working, they aren’t getting paid. So, they are literally willing to risk their lives for their livelihood and continue working as the fires rage on so they can put food on their tables.

  • Many workers may not speak the language fluently. So, they often do not understand emergency broadcasts. Furthermore, even if they understood and evacuated to designated shelters, many are hesitant to go because they are undocumented.

Progress made in 2021:

Legislation has been introduced in California designed to protect vulnerable farmworkers. It would allow for checks on worker safety in real-time during wildfires, mandate that workers have access to PPE during fire season and receive training on safety guidelines, and require emergency warnings in English and Spanish (most migrant workers in California are from Central and South America). The Biden Administration has recently announced a national plan to combat human trafficking in the USA. Agricultural industry is pushing for immigration reform via the farmworker’s rights bill, which will give workers greater protections.

Still a ways to go

There have been a lot of positive signs and progress made on these issues this year, but proposed legislation must be passed and, most importantly, enforced. The culture surrounding agricultural work ultimately needs to change and workers need to be valued and treated with dignity instead of as means to an end.

Diana Hawkins, Responsible Hedonist
Diana Hawkins, Responsible Hedonist

Read more from Diana Hawkins about money laundering, wine smuggling, and tax evasion in 'Money laundering and wine'.