Italians have been gripped this month by the latest developments in the trial of two men over the death of Mohamed Abdullah, a Sudanese immigrant who worked as a seasonal labourer in the agri-food industry and died picking tomatoes under the scorching sun between the provinces of Lecce and Taranto, in Puglia, in July 2015.
Farm owner Giuseppe Mariano and Mohamed Elsalih, believed to be a mediator for the arrivals of labourers in the region, are charged with manslaughter and enslavement in a case that shocked the country and shone a spotlight on conditions for workers in the industry.
But extreme weather conditions are only one of the elements posing a threat to workers in the agri-food industry, whose rights the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy, a key plank of the European Green Deal, designed to shift to a sustainable food model, sets out to protect.
“Sustainability is not only an environmental or economic concept; it also has a social dimension that needs to translate into better working conditions and better wages for workers, in particular for the most vulnerable actors across the food chain,” says Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary general of the European Federation of Trade Unions in Food, Agriculture and Tourism (EFFAT).
Sustainability is not only an environmental or economic concept; it also has a social dimension
When the European Commission first presented its Farm to Fork strategy as part of the Green Deal back in 2019, “social fairness” was identified as a guiding principle of the ambitious package to combat climate change and spur a green transition.
But almost from the start, there were concerns this criteria was not being met.
Otherwise a strong supporter of the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy, Somaglia says: “The main shortcoming of these environmental policies is that they completely lack social considerations.”
Somaglia explains that leaving aside social considerations is ultimately not a winning strategy, because it prevents Farm to Fork from reaching the social acceptance needed to ensure these policies are “actually embraced by those that have to deliver the change”, a category of which Somaglia says agri-food workers constitute a large share.
In October 2021 EFFAT applauded the adoption of the European Parliament’s own initiative report (INI) which took up several demands put forward by the Federation with the aim of improving the strategy’s social dimension.
Among the most important was consideration of the eight fundamental International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, covering a wide range of social and labour issues, including human rights.
The INI report also recognised the right to protective equipment, information and training on the use and dangers of pesticides, and access to official documentation on the pesticides used in their place of work.
Despite what campaigners view as wins, many continue to complain the focus on “social fairness” has been lost from the strategy. One of Somaglia’s main criticisms of Farm to Fork’s approach to the social dimension is that while it includes general references to the conditions experienced by seasonal workers, he says it lacks measures to ensure the agri-food sector is fairer and more sustainable.
“To us it’s clear the green transition is needed, however, this can’t only be carried out with nice words, [it also requires] concrete terms,” he says.
The text of the Farm to Fork strategy specifically recognises the importance of respect for social rights, “especially“ when it comes to precarious, seasonal and undeclared workers”. However, Somaglia claims undeclared migrant workers are “completely overlooked and there are no clear measures targeting the issue”. To him, the reason for this is clear: “What is missing is the political willingness to address the problem.”
What is missing is the political willingness to address the problem
Letizia Palumbo, senior research fellow at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice focusing on labour exploitation, human rights and migration, claims what is needed to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers in the agri-food industry is “action to regulate, license and monitor recruitment agencies, including those based in third countries, for instance through the European Labour Authority (ELA)”.
Another intervention Palumbo believes has the potential to addres what she sees as a systemic problem is to amend the Seasonal Workers Directive so it also applies to undocumented migrants already in EU Member States.
In 2021 the European institutions agreed on the introduction of social conditionality in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which, while separate from the Farm to Fork strategy, is closely connected to it. This means that if relevant working and employment conditions are not respected, no CAP payments will be issued. While this will actively help to counter the violation of workers’ rights and was recognised by both Somaglia and Palumbo as a step in the right direction, both believe there is more to be done.
According to Palumbo, when it comes to strengthening the social dimension in agricultural policies, it is important to bolster, as part of the EU green transition, alternative food systems, short supply chains, and community supported agriculture. She says this “should meet the objective of healthy, sustainable and accessible food provision as well as ensure fair working conditions”.
The lifespan of Farm to Fork, conceived in 2019, has been shaped by two main events: the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, both of which brought the food industry to the EU’s attention, albeit in different ways.
“With factories becoming Covid-19 hotspots, the pandemic has cast a new light on the challenging, sometimes dramatic, working and living conditions of the many workers in the sector,” says Somaglia. This, he says, helped foster consensus over the need for change. The response, however, was varied.
Palumbo says countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and Spain passed on the opportunity to enforce labour rights and strengthen migrants’ rights in the agri-food sector, opting instead for short-term reparative measures, “to alleviate the effects of the pandemic on their situations of vulnerability and working conditions without addressing the root causes”.
On the other hand, Russia’s war on Ukraine and the food crisis it triggered risks having the opposite effect.
“I’m worried that in the last months the external shock of the war in Ukraine has also contributed to further driving the attention away from this. As we know, it is a tough political and economic period,” Palumbo adds.
Employers are in many cases demanding more flexibility on environmental standards and a revision of the Farm to Fork strategy. Somaglia says this could lead to requests for more flexibility on social standards too. “We may see requests for increased flexibility when it comes to labour inspection, and workers may run more risk of being exploited due to the need to increase production.”
The path from farm to fork is certainly a long one, but whether it will or won’t be a treacherous one for agri-food workers to tread will be determined by upcoming legislative proposals. Food for thought.