They are stacked in the kitchen cupboards of almost every household in Britain — tins of Italian tomatoes and tubes of tomato paste which help families produce delicious meals day after day.
But how much do we actually know about this larder staple — or, more specifically, about the way the tomatoes are produced? For there have been allegations that behind those innocent-looking tins lies a story so shocking you might think twice before buying them again.
It is high summer in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Away from the charming coastal towns that lure 1.7 million tourists a year to the heel of Italy, the tomato harvest is about to begin.
How much do we actually know about this larder staple — or, more specifically, about the way the tomatoes are produced (file image)
This is a multi-billion-pound business — Italy is the source of more than 80 per cent of all global canned tomato exports and a fifth of tomato paste. Make a spaghetti Bolognese and it is likely some of the ingredients will have come from the huge processing plants around the town of Foggia.
But there is a shadow over this otherwise sun-blasted landscape. It involves African ‘slave’ labour, appalling shanty towns, savage supermarket price-cutting, sudden death and the world’s most powerful Mafia network.
As agricultural union official Rocco Borgese told the Mail: ‘UK consumers should know that the paste you buy in supermarkets is not simply a concentrate of tomato but (often) a concentrate of crime and exploitation.’
Last Thursday morning local authority diggers were sent in — again — to demolish a section of the Borgo Mezzanone, an illegal shanty town on the edge of Foggia.
Hundreds of riot police and firemen stood by to watch the migrant evictions. Batons and tear gas were used when opposition was briefly encountered. Most of the ghetto’s 1,500 inhabitants had come from Africa. All were camping there in the hope of harvesting tomatoes, many of which will reach UK plates.
Father Andrea Pupilla, a priest working for a charity helping migrants at the camp, told the Mail: ‘There have been forced evictions to dismantle these “ghettos” before — but they have risen again in very little time.
Cut-price supermarket chains have driven down the prices paid for produce. They put pressure on the tomato processing firms, which pass the squeeze down the chain to the farmer (file image)
‘Labourers are not willing to move, because even if they live in terrible conditions they get more chances to work. This is the system, unfortunately. The supply chain is rotten.’
In recent years, Italy has been the destination for hundreds of thousands of Africans who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean illegally to escape conflict or just find a better life.
Thousands have drowned in the attempt, while those who do succeed in reaching the shores of Italy — almost 200,000 in 2016 — are hardly made to feel welcome.
The official demonisation of these migrants by the populist government in Rome has only served to play into the hands of those who have a vested interest in illegally exploiting their plight.
Foremost among them are the ’Ndrangheta, who have overtaken Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra to become the most powerful mafia crime network not only in Italy but across the globe.
The ’Ndrangheta arose in the southern province of Calabria — Italy’s ‘toe’ — in the 19th century, and it is still their heartland. Then they were rural brigands in a feudal countryside, where agricultural labourers were held in a form of vassalage. Today, the serfs are African.
Calabria has the largest migrant reception centres on the Italian mainland, and the Italian state pays up to 45 euros per migrant per day to the companies that manage them. Of course, the most forceful contract winners in Calabria are the ’Ndrangheta.
One of the migrant centres they controlled until recently was described as ‘a cashpoint for the mafia’. And a convenient ‘slave’ labour pool, as we shall see.
According to the Observatory of Crime in Agriculture and the Food Chain, the annual value of the so-called ‘agromafia’ activities was 22 billion euros last year. It now accounts for 15 per cent of total turnover in such organised crime networks (file image)
Today, the ’Ndrangheta control an estimated 80 per cent of Europe’s cocaine trade. But they have found another area of business which is altogether safer and often just as profitable as selling drugs — and can be used to launder the billions of euros of narcotic proceeds.
This is the multi-billion-euro Italian food production chain.
According to the Observatory of Crime in Agriculture and the Food Chain, the annual value of the so-called ‘agromafia’ activities was 22 billion euros last year. It now accounts for 15 per cent of total turnover in such organised crime networks.
But legal enterprises also play a role in the exploitation of the workforce.
Cut-price supermarket chains have driven down the prices paid for produce. They put pressure on the tomato processing firms, which pass the squeeze down the chain to the farmer.
In 2018, Italian farmers received less than 8 cents per kilo of tomatoes. In the shops, consumers could be charged 2 euros for the same amount — a mark-up of more than 2,000 per cent.
But this squeeze is felt most by those at the very bottom of the supply chain: the migrant workers who are the cheapest labour on the market.
The ’Ndrangheta clans are involved in the supply of seasonal labour for the harvests through the now illegal caporalato — gang masters — system. Outside the shanty camps you will see groups of Africans waiting, hoping, to be chosen by a caporale — gang master.
The caporale’s word is law. Protest and you are out — or worse. And while there is much to protest about, the workers have little or no leverage. So where can they go?
In Puglia, a worker might be paid as little as €3.50 to fill a chest with 300kg of tomatoes.
‘On a regular contract, economic migrants should earn 45 euros net a day, but in reality they only earn about a third of that,’ says the union official Mr Borgese.
The caporale’s word is law. Protest and you are out — or worse. And while there is much to protest about, the workers have little or no leverage. So where can they go (file image)
‘Since they are in need of an Italian residency permit (which can be obtained only through proof of a work contract), they will put up with anything.’
Indeed, some work contracts reportedly change hands illegally for hundreds of euros.
‘The caporale drives them to their workplace and forces them to pay for transportation. Food and water costs extra. It is all deducted from their wages, and they cannot refuse. The gang master gets his cut, too. There are no rest periods. This is absolute exploitation.
Leonardo Palmisano is a sociologist and author of a book on the Mafia gang master system. He described the profits to be made from this ‘modern-day slavery’: ‘From recent statistics, we know there are some 90,000 day labourers under the direct control of the caporalato system.
‘If one considers tax evasion and the fact labourers work up to 180 days a year, the Mafia can take 2-3 billions euros a year just from those 90,000 foreign labourers.’
Accidental deaths are far from uncommon. Twelve migrants were killed when an overloaded caporale minibus crashed last year.
But the strain of working punishing hours at the height of summer was truly brought home to a wider public with the death of a legal Sudanese labourer at Nardo in Puglia in 2015.
On his first day on the Italian mainland, father of two Abdullah Muhammed died of a heart attack picking tomatoes. He had started at 4am and was expected to work without a break until 5pm. Allegedly, he was not given access to medical treatment when he fell ill. A criminal investigation was launched and is still ongoing.
In 2016, new laws were passed to close loopholes and increase penalties for the exploitation of labour. These have made little difference according to locals.
Napolina and Cirio products are sold in Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s supermarkets and numerous other stores (file image)
What responsibility do we in the UK share for this crisis? The farm at Nardo where Mr Muhammed died was reportedly supplying two of the biggest tomato-produce brands sold in the UK.
Napolina and Cirio products are sold in Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s supermarkets and numerous other stores.
A spokesperson for Napolina said: ‘Since 2013, we have proactively built capacity and awareness in our supply chain by providing training and guidance to suppliers and growers on ethical compliance and labour practices, and have conducted more than 4,000 in-field inspections.
‘This has led us to the position where every tomato grower in our supply chain holds a verified ethical accreditation or certification — which is now a condition of supply to us.’
Conserve Italia, of which Cirio is a brand name, has also taken steps to combat the exploitation of workers — although, says a spokesperson, 98 per cent of tomatoes are harvested mechanically.
And where manual labour is used, there is a code of ethics all stakeholders are expected to comply with: ‘We carry out audits of farms to ensure compliance, with particular attention to respect for workers’ rights and workplace safety. Those who do not follow our rules are dropped from the supply chain.’
Tesco is also tackling the problem. ‘We have zero tolerance for exploitation in our supply chain,’ said a spokesman.
The Ethical Trading Initiative, which numbers Waitrose and Sainsbury’s as well as Tesco, is also clamping down on exploitation: ‘Our member retailers are very much aware of the problems and committed to driving change, but the challenges are long standing and finding effective solutions takes time.
Remember Baba and his kin when you next make your Bolognese sauce (file image)
‘The complexity of modern supply chains means it is unrealistic for any company to 100 per cent guarantee their business operates entirely without slave labour or exploitation, but companies need to be vigilant, committed to continual improvement and prepared to collaborate as part of a process that delivers real change.’
Meanwhile, Baba, 22, from Senegal was picking among the wreckage of Borgo Mezzanone shanty camp where his ‘home’ has been destroyed.
He was in Foggia for the last tomato harvest. It was there he ran into a caporale who promised him a work contract which never materialised.
‘I found another job picking olives, but I was still paying a caporale 5 euros a day for transport,’ he complained. ‘There is a lot of mafia in Italy. I work a month and they only give me 5 days in the pay slip. I am waiting for the tomato harvest now, it will start in 15 days.’
Remember Baba and his kin when you next make your Bolognese sauce.