Tomato workers fight exploitation by making their own sauce in Apulia

In southern Italy, a region with chronic unemployment, SfruttaZero is fighting illegal practices of the agromafia that take advantage of workers all along the production chain. 

Elena Comelli/Corriere della Sera
Tomato famers hold up freshly picked tomatoes.

They work 12 hours a day under the sun, sometimes until they collapse from exhaustion. They live by the thousands in makeshift camps or packed together in crumbling ghettos, just beyond the fields where the best “Made in Italy” fruit and vegetables are grown. They are mostly foreign seasonal workers, because exploitation can travel hand in hand with the phenomenon of migrant traffic. But there are also Italian day laborers such as Paola Clemente from San Giorgio Jonico, who died while she was working in the fields for two euros ($2.40) an hour.

The unwritten rules laid down by the recruiters of the agromafia (mafia in the agricultural sector) are more or less the same for everyone: no contract, a salary somewhere between 22 and 30 euros ($25 to $35) a day – less than half the legal minimum wage, as well as violence, blackmail, and abuse such as confiscation of papers. Work gloves are sold at an exorbitant price, and food and transport is forcibly sold to workers, under threat of dismissal.

Enter SfruttaZero, a tomato sauce company that seeks to create a "clean supply chain," from sowing seeds to processing the fruit, without exploiting workers. Activists from Diritti a Sud (Rights in the South) and Solidaria work with a group of legally registered and paid migrants. SfruttaZero operates in the countryside of Puglia, the region worst hit by illegal employment. “Farming fields without exploitation is possible, and that’s what we are doing,” explains Rosa Vaglio, spokeswoman for Diritti a Sud, who has been helping to run the SfruttaZero project for three years with remarkable success. “We started in the summer of 2016, producing 2,500 jars of sauce,” she says. “Last year we made almost 20,000 jars from land farmed in Nardò and Bari, and this year there will be even more.”

This “red gold” sells well in ethical purchasing groups, at fairs, and via the FuoriMercato, a countrywide network that operates outside traditional markets. The SfruttaZero brand has started to become well known, partly thanks to the Livatino prize it won in 2016, in recognition of its strong anti-mafia stance. “We are now getting orders from Germany, France, and Austria, as well as from Italy,” says Ms. Vaglio.

The project started almost as a challenge in the courtyard of an occupied school. It spread to legally rented lands in Nardò and the Japigia area of Bari. With funding from the Valdois church and the Banca Etica (Ethical Bank), it set out to become a stable business. “The idea was born in the ghetto of Nardò, where hundreds of migrants lived, crammed into a rundown shanty town,”  says Vaglio. “However, the initiative was not created solely to fight the exploitation of foreigners. We want dignity for everyone, including us young people, oppressed by the unemployment that has all of southern Italy in its grip. Here in the south there’s not much work even for those who have studied. Among us there are graduates, people with masters and doctorate degrees, who can’t find a job. And we are faced with people who transform agricultural work into an abyss of suffering.”

The activists of Diritti a Sud and Solidaria decided to roll up their sleeves and create a different reality, where it is possible to work with dignity alongside day laborers from the other side of the Mediterranean. Vaglio adds, “For us, this tomato sauce has a highly symbolic value. It represents a gathering of peoples, and therefore we try to produce it in a natural manner. We have taken courses in natural agriculture and we don’t use chemical products on our fields.” The young people of SfruttaZero want their cause to be recognized, and have illustrated the jar labels with pictures of the workers who contributed to the sauce’s production.

The financial costs are greater than those of traditional sauces, of course. Legally registering workers means reduced profit margins and higher prices than companies using illegal employment to push prices down. In its latest report on agromafia and illegal employment, the Italian trade union FLAI CGIL conducted a census of 80 agricultural districts with various degrees of mafia infiltration, where illegal practices all along the production chain create a hidden economy of 14 to 17 billion euros ($16 to $18.5 billion).

It's clear that this small artisanal business must overcome daunting obstacles. “Finding a field to rent is difficult. Land is mostly in the hands of a few large landowners, while the smaller lots have often been abandoned because they belong to divided families, with heirs spread out across the world,” says Vaglio. “But this year we’ve managed to find two hectares here in Nardò to farm: We’ve already planted 20,000 plants.” 

So far the association only has five workers on contract – three Italians, one Tunisian, and a Sudanese. But when the harvest begins, around July 10, far more labor will be needed. “Last year we had 21 agricultural contracts,” says Vaglio, who plans on adding more this year. It is a drop in the ocean of the half a million people trapped in forced labor in the Italian countryside, according to FLAI CGIL’s calculations. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction.

This story was reported by Corriere della Sera, a news outlet in Milan, Italy. The Monitor is publishing it as part of Impact Journalism Day, an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project organized by Paris-based Sparknews, please click here.

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