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The agricultural migrant labourer caught between exploitation and irregularity:

stories from Southern Europe.

Written by Stefano Mori for Centro Internazionale Crocevia

(Versione in italiano a seguire)


            The migratory phenomenon has acquired different connotations and motivations depending on the historical period. For example the rural south of Italy has been a source of migration for several decades, as its population migrated towards Northern Italy in search of work. Nowadays, this same area is a place of immigration: migrants from Africa or Middle East land here on their way to Northern Europe and often stay to find a job and a place to live, despite the atrocial conditions. Clearly, migration is a permanent and historical global phenomenon, and work is always an issue that is closely linked with migration. In situations of crisis (such as wars, economic crisis or climate change) migration has subsequently followed as a direct result of lack of resources. Thus, migrants will inevitably accept jobs despite the often-insalubrious conditions.

In last fifteen years, there have been many economic and political shocks, which have generated global instability and led to international migration flows coming into Europe from the East (especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and from the South (due to wars, poverty and climate change). In many of these cases, the aim of migrants has been to search for a job and to pursue a decent standard of living. Both migration and work are discussed in the human rights framework in the international conventions and declarations. In fact, the International Labour Organization (ILO) approved two conventions (INEA, 2009). The first one – Migration for Employment Convention (1949)[1] – established parity of treatment for migrant and resident workers regarding the following: working hours, salary, minimum age for employment, overtime work, education and apprenticeship. The second one – Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention (1975)[2] – recognised the parity of the two kinds of worker regarding the access to a job and free choice of occupation. Together, these two conventions guarantee a fair and equal protection of workers’ human rights, be they local or migrant workers. However, in reality this is rarely the case. There is a high proportion of irregular migrants who are not registered when they enter Europe and are thus at the mercy of ruthless employers. In return for work and giving them a roof over their heads, employers expect migrants to work in very challenging conditions. Many of these workers end up working ten hours a day and earn a very low salary that is not even enough for subsistence.

In many industrialized countries, including in European, there are still many cases of violations of workers’ human rights, bringing to the fore the urgency of the matter. This paper analyses this pressing problem. The first paragraph focuses on the model of production in agriculture, arguing that migrant labour represents a structural part of the European agriculture. The second paragraph analyses the poor quality of life that migrant labourers faces on a daily basis, especially those relating to harvesting time, and particular attention is paid to describing the livelihoods of these workers. The final paragraph is divided into three parts: three case studies from Greece, Italy and Spain are put forth, in order to present a global view of the actual situation of migrant labourers in Southern Europe.


In last thirty years, agriculture has experienced new forms of production, but it still requires cheap labour. This is especially true in Southern Europe, where agricultural labour is normally temporary and requires workers (nomadic labourers, internal migrants) to move from farm to farm, according to seasonal farming demands. Today, this demand has been covered by an increasing number of international migrant workers. In fact in many Mediterranean countries, the rural areas that the labourers enter are often in the process of transformation due to territorial, economic and social uncertainties, that stem from post-Fordism globalisation (Colloca and Corrado, 2013). Rural areas have also experienced an industrialization process that is common to urban areas, including decentralization, development of services and the re-organization of new local systems. The transition from a traditional production system to a more technological and industrial production system, which links a centre of consumers to a periphery of production, is the result of the neo-liberalisation process. This is based on the ideology of a global economic growth: the transformation from a peasant mode of farming to an entrepreneurial mode of farming has been introduced and consolidated by the massive state-led modernization project (cf. CAP EU) that initiated worldwide between 1960s and 1970s, even if under different forms (Van der Ploeg, 2012). The innovations carried on in agriculture led to two main consequences. Firstly, an outflow of agricultural labour force was set in motion due to an increase in the scale of production. Secondly, it implied the introduction of a technology-driven intensification of production, which substituted the labour-driven forms of intensification. In Europe the main vehicle for modernization for rural modernisation was provided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which was supported by significant interventions of individual member States.

However, the application of technological innovations has had a negative impact on the social structure, especially where the social basis was not able to receive (or the social basis refused) modernisation – otherwise understood as industrial innovation. A clear example of the negative impacts of modernisation can be seen in Italy. In the last two decades there has been a decrease in full-time regular farm labour, both in terms of family members and non-family workers. This decrease continues until 2003 and reached one of the lowest level of employees ever (one million workers in agriculture). Between 2003 and 2006 there was an increase followed by a period of stability. From 2007 the trend decreased once again (ISTAT, 2000/2010/2013).

Data for 2013 are:

Figure 1. The composition of the Italian familiar agriculture




Figure 2. The composition of Italian non-familiar agriculture

Immagine 2



Figure 3. Resuming the Italian workers in agriculture





This drop in the number of workers has mainly been caused by two distinct policies:

  1. The introduction of the Regional Taxation on Productive Activities (such as IRAP, or the increasing of IVA, among others), which encouraged the abandonment of agricultural activities – especially small scale production – due to the increase in costs of production, and a willingness to move from an exclusive agricultural activity to alternative-agricultural activity, such as tourism.
  2. The Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) main priority was directed towards competitiveness, growth, productivity and profit. It eroded the subsidies linked to production and attempted to overcome it with a system of subsidies that depended on the amount of hectares cultivated (Corrado, 2015). This system of subsidy has been devastating for family farming[3] because CAP concentrated all of its monetary help – and consequently the land – into a few farms: 93,7% of the farms received an average annual subsidy of one thousands euros per farm, and 0,29% of farms instead received an average annual subsidy of one million euros per farm (source: PE-Gruppo VE). This data confirms the institutional will to support an agro-industrial model. Moreover, the “new” CAP has not changed: it maintains the same approach on subsidies, which is linked to the historical dimension of the farms that received CAP support (Onorati, 2014).

It is therefore clear that the overall aim of the policies has not changed. Through the mechanisation of the production there will be less need of skilled labour, and an increased need for low skilled labour, i.e. workers who accept low salaries, which in turns helps to decrease the costs of production. In fact, within a neoliberal industrial model, the farm needs to achieve the lowest cost of production in order to compete and remain competitive. Smaller farms use this type of labour to survive while big farms or industrial agribusinesses, which already receive CAP support, do so in order to guarantee a high profit margin.

The global economic crisis of 2008 certainly had an impact on the agricultural sector. However, in Italy, a country with proportionally significant agricultural sector, workers’ wages did not decrease very much. This stability of employment can be explained in different ways: Italy has a great number of family farms (they represent the 95% of all farms – ISTAT 2010), and they have shown resilience even when the crisis has been hard, thus they have managed to retain many of their workers. Secondly, the irregular[4] labour force (which cannot be registered in an objective way in official statistics) in the agricultural sector in Italy is three times higher than those in other sectors. It is linked to agriculture due to its characteristic of seasonal labour, which is needed for three or four months per year depending on the cultivation. In this period the request for labour force is higher, and it is easier to find irregular workers, thus lowering the farm’s production costs. After the global economic crisis, the migrant labour force grew in the agricultural sector, providing the  opportunity for agro-industries to pay less for its workers due to lower expectations from migrants. In fact there has been a significant hike of migrant work: in 2008, it represented 19,4% of the total work force and it increased to 37% in 2013 (INEA, 2014). This data shows that the percentage of migrant workers almost doubled in few years and much of this increase was found within the southern regions of Italy. Clearly, this increase is also the result of the entrance of new members into the Schengen Area, allowing for an easier mobility of EU migrants. The employment of a non-EU migrant labour force in Italian agriculture is still escalating, due partly to the crisis that hit other sectors, and partly because of the financing allocated to farming as the model of CAP. Over half of non-EU migrant workers are consequently employed in work with permanent crops, as these types of jobs require physical strength and little skill. Meanwhile, there is also an increase in the number of workers in the grazing of livestock and cattle, which is skilled work and long-term in comparison.

This information suggests that the migrant labour force has become a fundamental structural element of the entire Italian agriculture sector. However, the nature of contracts for non-EU migrants is seasonal. Furthermore, this labour is concentrated in Southern Italy, where the agricultural system (fruits and vegetables production) requires these types of workers. The registered figures reflect a full-time regular labour force, which accounts for 43,2%, while an additional 28,8% of cases fall under a partial regular contract (meaning that half of the complete and paid job is not covered by the contract). Therefore, the assumption can be made that 28% of  non-EU migrant workers are employed in a situation of total irregularity (Corrado, 2015) and without social protection or other regular worker’s rights. This situation creates cases of exploitation, as analyzed in the paragraph below, and in the case studies that demonstrate migrants’ living conditions.

As we have seen above, many migrants work in a situation of irregularity; however, in Italy there are some policies that directly address the migrant labour force. There are mainly three kinds of regulations: laws regarding the contracts for migrant work; laws on access to housing; and laws regarding professional education (Osti, 2010). The first aspect, from the legal perspective, does not give any space for discrimination of non-EU workers. However, practical inspections are not particularly trustworthy and a lack of inspections is evident in all productive sectors. As already stated, added to this are the seasonal characteristic features of the agricultural sector that are reflected in one of the highest levels of irregularity. The second issue, also discussed below, is a sensitive subject. Local body, such as municipalities, provinces or regions provide housing for seasonal workers, including migrant works who only work during certain seasons. Nevertheless, this effort by local authorities is often not enough, so some voluntary groups intervene and offer places to stay, food and/or sanitary services. These voluntary groups are made up of local associations, NGOs and, in some virtuoso cases, the farmer owners of the crops themselves. Policies also intervene in terms of professional education, yet the focus of these policies can be questioned. Migrant workers learn how to manage a certain sector of agro-industry, following the trend of dualism, which means that the work in the fields or in the sheds is delegated to low paid workers, and the local people just guide them. This creates a dangerous fragmentation, as locals tend to work on alternative sectors of agriculture – related to tourism, such as restaurants or accommodation services – while migrants are relegated to the lower “professional” tasks. The consequence is that the more specialised migrants leaves to find other jobs, while those with fewer capacities remain in situ and carryout low-paid jobs, thus becoming marginalised from the rest of society. Overall, this demonstrates that there are significant gaps in policies on rural development for migrants, leading to fewer possibilities for those who reach Europe’s shores.

La Via Campesina[5] has made a significant international contribution to the advocacy work against the conditions of migrant workers worldwide. In a statement they made[6], they announced some important pillars to be considered by national governments. Firstly, the statement argues for the recognition of the rights of emigrants, who are victims of terrorism. They should be supported in order to avoid the separation of workers from their families through inhumane conditions for the kids. Moreover, the statement calls for states to respect international conventions, and to adhere to the convention for the protection of the migrants’ rights and their families. Another issue contemplated in the statement is the legalisation of clandestine migration in order to put a halt to criminal organizations, thus ensuring the same working conditions for migrants and for local people. It is important to oppose the seasonal work system, which creates more division among the working class and undermines its battles for rights and its internal organization. In the case the seasonal work cannot be deleted, there should be an authority whose role is to protect the rights of individual migrants. La Via Campesina also argues against the green revolution, which failed to deliver any real results on climate change issues and instead exacerbated the crisis, which in turn (one could speculate), increased the number of climate change refugees[7]. At the same time it calls on government to take responsibilities for their own political, war and climate change refugees. La Via Campesina argues that a new model of farming is needed and suggests that it is already present in peasant agriculture, which needs to be supported by national policies, instead of protecting the agro-industries business. In addition, it calls for the destruction of all walls still present, that divide people and represent an aggression towards human beings, and finally, to stop wars around the occupation of territories and the extraction of natural resources.


            The underlying causes of the movement of migrants from one region to another are the characteristic features of seasonal work, as workers strive to meet demands of labour requirements. These people are victims of a political and economic system that marginalises them wherever they go to work.

Local authorities do not tend to denounce this phenomenon, and instead become accomplices of these cases of exploitation, because migrant labour is needed by local economies. Meanwhile immigrants are usually marginalised by the local community as they hold no influence on political processes. Therefore, the situation that is generated around migrant workers keeps their existence in the new country away from the public eye. In fact, they usually arrive in Europe in healthy conditions and full of ambitions. Sadly, within a few months of working in extreme conditions, for long hours (an average of 10 working hours per day), with a low wage (an average of 25 euro per day), and without a doctor (because of the irregularity of the contract), they often succumb to illness. They rarely make enough money to be able to send remittances to their families in their countries of origin. The report of Medici Senza Frontiere sheds light on similar situations across different regions of Southern Italy (Lazio, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicilia) and confirmed that the situation has not changed since the publication of the previous report four years earlier. The MEDU report also focuses on the same regions. Both reports showcase the conditions of migrant workers, which are common across the Mediterranean region, where seasonal work is required due to the types of cultivated crops.

The main causes of the situation of migrant workers are well described in MEDU’s report. Due to their fragile legal status, migrant workers are easily blackmailed: many people do not have the necessary documents to work in Italy. Moreover, landowners often write up fake contracts in order to assure that they are in line with the law and cannot be punished. They offer low wages, which do not even allow for the purchase of basic medicines. Another relevant issue is the housing of migrant workers, which is always below the minimum standards as set out by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN-OHCHR) in the Right to Adequate Housing[9], which is recognized in many national constitutions and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Migrant workers are usually accommodated in slums, abandoned houses or factories in the middle of the countryside, far away from urban areas. The oftentimes-irregular working conditions means that these persons are usually invisible within the institutional context. The working conditions are coordinated through a caporale[10], the person who is able to convince migrants to work for him in exchange for crumbling accommodation and little money. The function of the caporale is to act like a temping agency, whereby they sell the work of daily farm labourers to the landholders. Lastly, the worst feature specific to migrant employment is the violence against workers: threats and unpaid salaries; physical aggressions; violent aggression; violent racism from criminals; slavery; and in the worst cases – sexual abuses.

Market competition and the agricultural crisis have generated a surge in the exploitation of labour: the value of labour has dwindled (especially the harvesting sector), the hours of work are on the rise, and the number of days worked has increased (Colloca and Corrado, 2013). Another consequence of this competition is the visible division inside the enormous group of migrants. There are those who succeed in finding a stable job for the whole year (usually those employed in cattle farms), and those who find themselves alone and without a reference point for support, given their constant moving in search of seasonal jobs. The former group is mainly composed of EU migrants, known as “settlement migrants”: after an initial period in an urban area they succeed in finding relatively stable work in the rural areas. The latter group is composed of non-EU migrants and they are often divided. They are often considered as a commodity rather than people, and as such they are easy prey for the interests of local people who seek a low-cost labour force. Moreover, this differentiation is evident in their accommodation: the landowner, who has difficulty in organising accommodation for the migrant labour force, chooses to provide decent housing, should it become available, only for immigrants with stable jobs.

The next paragraph will give a general overview of the overall situation in the Mediterranean through the analysis of a few select case studies from Italy, Spain and Greece, where the conditions of the migrant labour force present similar characteristics.

CASE STUDIES OF MIGRANT LABOUR FORCE IN EUROPE:                                     


            Agriculture in Greece is a fundamental sector since the formation of the Greek State. Greece, as is the case with other Mediterranean countries, has been influenced by the modernization and innovation processes of agriculture through an international division of labour and through significant changes by the state’s economic policies, influenced by its history of emigration (towards USA) and immigrant (the current situation). Despite the transformation in the sector, in Greece family farming has always been the most predominant form. In recent years, it has represented economic survival against global shifts, especially after the “green revolution”, which was born as the solution for the poorest rural areas in the world, through an increase of productivity and the reduction of production costs. In other words, agriculture has witnessed an invasion of technology and a dependence on chemical products, which are exclusive of agricultural industries (such as Monsanto, Du Pont, etc.). From among the family farms that kept a traditional production model, only a few suffered this dependence on chemical products and the alterations of the costs of technological products. In Greece the 76% of farms are less than 5 hectares in size, whilst those that are over 100 hectares in size account for just 10% (Eurostat, 2012). Papadopoulos (2015) underlines that, “family farming is not just the outcome on an incomplete modernization process, but rather a systemic characteristic of households, communities and local economies in Greece”. It means that this model of production react in a flexible way to the changes of the global economy and represents the best way to resist and adapt to these changes. Moreover it is the best model to guarantee food security for all, especially in rural areas. However, as is the case in other Southern Europe States, the recent global economic crisis caused many problems and changes in rural areas: many residents of rural area are leaving or have left agriculture as the main source of employment or are expanding their farms into multi-sectoral or non-agricultural land uses. However, the crisis did not affect the number of family farms as much, which confirms the great power of resilience of this way of production and this way of life. Hence, as in other parts of Mediterranean, family farms produce more and provide food security for the population. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of depopulation is widely visible here, comparable to the previous analysis in Italy, and migration plays a great role.

Nowadays, in Greek agriculture, three kinds of mobility are present:

  1. The exodus from certain rural localities due to the lack of employment opportunities, which results in the depopulation of the already disadvantaged rural areas with fewer services than the urban areas.
  2. A growing interest towards rural areas for farming as a hobby or extra activities related to the land (tourism).
  3. An inflow of migrants, coming from the urban areas, where they were unable to find a job due to the economic crisis and thus seek job opportunities in rural areas, where low specialised work is required.

As for the Italian case, family farms employ mostly family labour, so the medium and large farms  employ this category of workers. Even if some studies consider that migrants are overrepresented[11] among the wage labourers, it can be argued that they represent a structural factor for Greek rural economy and society. Nonetheless, the migrant labour force is important even in family farming: due to new multi-sectoral activities of the farms, family members are employed in alternative tasks, while migrants, who receive a lower wage, work directly in the fields. This structure is on the rise in Greek agriculture following the good economic return of off-farm activities. From 1991 to 2013 employment in agriculture dropped by 22%, which represented a decrease of 32% in terms of full-time employed persons (Elstat, 1991-2013). In fact, given this decline (that is similar to the case of Italy) the migrant labour force has been easily convinced to apply for seasonal work and low wages, which had previously been rejected by residents. Given the characteristic features of seasonal work, the majority of occasional labourers are irregular migrants, i.e. they are not recorded in official statistics. Huge number of migrants travel through Greece in order to reach Northern European countries, so the demand for jobs in permanent fields is easily met by the supply of workers. Moreover there is competition for these kinds of jobs, which in turn means low wages and low protection. There are no official statistics about irregular migrants working within the Greek territory, however it can be said that the highest figures regarding the unrecorded presence of foreign immigrants are to be found in the sectors of construction and agriculture. For this reason, the migrant labourer is less controlled and protected: work hours are much longer than the ones of Greek people and, of course, they are also less well paid.

All in all, the migrant workers represent a fundamental part within the agricultural wage labour force. Migrant workers have been an additional source of labour for family farming not only due to the acceptance of low-wage employees, but also for the possibility to engage in new off-agricultural activities with great results. However, for medium and large farms, which need to increase the production in order to remain competitive and grow economically, they opted for further worsening the living and work conditions of migrant wage labourers.


Between the 1980s and 2000, Spain registered a huge increase in the number of migrants in the country: from 360,000 immigrants in 1991, a record 5 and a half million immigrants was reached in 2009 (Caruso and Corrado, 2015). A similar trend unfold across Southern European countries: in the first phase of the migrant process, they stay in the southern part of the country awaiting for the regularization of their entry into the State. This shed light on the lack of effective and efficient policies. The regularization process still takes a long time, thus contributing to the automatic and unregulated system of mobility of workers in the south of Spain. In the past, Andalusia (a southern region of Spain) was considered as a transit place and a stepping-stone to the richer Northern parts of Europe, but now it has become a sedentary area where families are often able to subsequently join the workers. Nevertheless, they still suffer from a poor quality life and inadequate working conditions. As shown in the Greek case study, given the nature of agricultural work, local people have been replaced by immigrant workers. The reasons behind this are manifold but similar: depopulation of the rural areas due to a lack of services, the refusal of local people to work for low wages, long working hours, seasonal contracts and the requirement of the  agro-industry to lower the costs of production (Palacios and Rubio, 2004). Additionally, in Andalucia the mobility of workers follows the seasonality of fruit and vegetables and the demand for employment in harvesting the crops, so in order to fight unemployment, workers try to migrate where they are needed.

An interesting case study in Spain is Poniente Almeriense, a city in Andalusia, near Almeria. The area near Almeria is famous for its colossal vegetable productions, due to the aggressive development of agro-industry in the last three decades. But it is also known for its economic depression, as it has always been an area of emigration. Paradoxically Almeria has now became an area of immigration (Caruso and Corrado, 2012). Corporations and agribusiness have convinced peasants to switch to monoculture through the use of hybrid seeds that on the one hand reduce the time of production, but on the other hand do not improve the quality of the plant and have negative impacts on biodiversity. Farmers are consequently tied into the industrial chain of larger distribution through contract farming, which is structured through precise timing (which is obviously different from the timing of nature), the lowering of prices, and the implementation of quality protocols that homologate all productions. The industrialization of agriculture would not be able to maintain itself without a stable number of people who are flexible and willing to work in harvesting crops, even if it is only for few days. The lack of policies on accommodation for these migrants, and the lack of efficiency in controlling the irregularity of this kind of job, force irregular migrants to stay near the greenhouses, where they face difficult living conditions, such as racial segregation and rising xenophobia, including racially motivated attacks on migrants. Despite this intolerable situation, both migration and the demand for this kind of labour force to harvest crops continue to grow. Competition is ever higher and the real wages are lowered even further: the contract wage is around 50 euros for 6 hours of working, but in reality it is around 30 euros for 8/9 hours working (Caruso and Corrado, 2012).

In addition, the same situation also appears among small-scale producers who are not tied to the agribusiness chain. Many farmers are facing the unfair competition of industrial products, which flood the market in larger quantities and at cheaper prices. For this reason, the farmer has no choice: in order to access the market with their products – they must lower the prices for consumers. The farmer thus requires a low-cost labour force. In Spain, the recruitment of workers goes through two main channels: the irregular route, in which an intermediate body (a private person or group of persons) finds irregular migrants to exploit them and as a result they are then hidden from the law; or the legal route, through the so called Empresas de Trabajo Temporal, which is a private recruitment system that works within a legal framework. However, even through this (apparently) legal system, there are still many cases of exploitations. In Murcia, in 2000, it was discovered that the Empresas de Trabajo Temporal were recruiting migrants to work on permanent crops, but paying them only 50% of their salary, which was already low to start with: the migrant was receiving 0,675 pesetas per hour, which the intermediate sold for 1,10 pesetas to the farmer (Cevallos, 2000). They were acting in the same way as Italian caporalatos, but within a legal framework. Indeed, they also provided accommodations and transport to the fields. A more recent episode occurred in Murcia again. In 2015, nine people working in an Empresa de Trabajo Temporal, were arrested due to the exploitation of workers within the permanent crop sector. They were creating fake contracts for the migrants who were recruited from all over the world. The accused had made contracts for irregular migrants, by means of an exchange of identity with people who held a regular residency permit (El Mundo, 2015). These cases evidently demonstrate that the productive system does not provide adequate alternatives for farmers and that, despite being fully aware of this situation, the state is not proactive in attempting to address it.


In Italy, the situation remains as stated above. The poor working conditions and poor quality of life that the migrant workers experience in Italy is common throughout Southern Italy, from Lazio to the extreme south. It also reaches the Northern part of the country where there are permanent fields of grapes and fruit. In  the regions of the most famous wines (such as Franciacorta, Chianti or Barolo), migrant workers are exploited even though that kind of product can achieve a high market value, especially when it is exported. Clearly, these tendencies to over-exploit are common not only in sectors where prices of the agricultural products are low (such as oranges in Calabria region), but also in sectors where the prices of a product are inflated. Essentially, this means that the migrant labour force has already become rooted in the Italian agro-food productive system and represents a structural issue too. This is confirmed by the data presented above: the registered growth in salaried work in the field of agriculture[12] is mostly due to the migrant labour force. The actual productive system is governed by large-scale retail trade, which imposes market prices in order to maintain competitiveness. Therefore, in circumstances whereby larger corporations enter the field of agriculture, the result is that they can lower the prices of the products through lower costs of production. As a consequence, prices then reach a level in which the landowner has two possibilities: to leave the fruit on the trees, because the harvesting will be more expansive than the profit of the fruit in the market; or they must find a way to exploit workers. And this happens to producers in different agricultural sectors too, such as those in livestock production. Even small-scale producers have to face the competitive prices of industrial products present in the market. It is exactly the same process as described in last paragraph: the farmers need to find a “middlemen” to recruit low-cost workers. In Italy, the intermediate body is made up of cooperatives or private companies that offer subcontracting services, and sometimes they operate in other countries as well, especially from Eastern Europe (Corrado et al., 2016).

The third report made by the Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto – Flai Cgil describes a situation, which concerns the protests from migrant workers who voiced their problems to the national media. Despite the media attention and coverage, sadly, it has not been enough to initiate change to adjust policies or create new ones. This is in part because of strong lobbying by the agro-industry as they do not favour a change in policy to support the migrant labour force. The information provided in the report is shocking: today more than 400,000 daily farmlabourers are exploited in the fields. The daily salary is between 22 and 30 euros depending on the amount of vegetables/fruit personally harvested; this is half the expected wage in national contracts. Additionally, they have neither safeguards nor social protections and they are required to work between 8 and 12 hours per day. The report draws attention to the dire situation of the accommodation of migrant workers: 60% of them cannot access water or hygienic services. Transport from the accommodation to the crop costs around 5 euro per day and the average daily expenses for living costs an average of 3 euro for a sandwich or 1,5 euro for a bottle of water (Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto, 2016). These persons work under the oppressing system of caporalato[13] and are not only migrants, but also Italians, with an increase of 30-50,000 people or more working under these conditions.

There are two aspects that perpetuate this situation and further strengthen resistance to change. Firstly, the way that the integration of migrants and the problem of caporalato is managed in Italy and secondly, the production model in the agricultural sector. Regarding the first aspect, the current laws impose severe limitation to the elimination of the phenomenon. Legislation involves 5 parts:

  1. The immigration law. In Italy, migrants are considered as victims that need to be rescued, while in reality, they are left in a precarious condition by the legal framework. The person who cannot obtain a residency permit is easily blackmailed. Refugees are not allowed free movement and those who do hold a residency permit are exploited through irregular work, low-skilled jobs and low wages.
  2. The housing issue. Independently of where the migrants are going in search of work, the construction of tent cities is an automatic process. These camps, represent real ghettos: there are no public transport amenities to take them to work in the city centre or simply to the supermarket. This happens because tent cities are built far away from any service, creating a stronger dependency on the services of their caporali.
  3. The hiring hall issue. There is a lack of hiring hall services in the areas of permanent crops. This means that there is more space for the caporali to intervene. So, even if the government tries to eradicate the problem through the capture of the caporali, there will be always someone else ready to step into that role. Moreover, it can be said that the landowners need someone to recruit the labour force, because without it, they will not be able to harvest all the fruit (or vegetables) that will otherwise rot on the trees (or in the ground).
  4. The public transport issue: at the moment the caporali owns all the transport services from the tent cities to the fields or to the city centre. So, the residents always have to pay when they need to go somewhere, giving immense control and power to the caporali. There are only few cases in Italy whereby public transport connects the tent cities to the fields; however, these are often inadequate compared to the number of tent cities.
  5. The reception issue: the Italian (and European) reception system presents structural problems. In recent years, an alternative reception system has been developed in parallel to the governmental one. After the first reception in migrant hotspot (which, in collaboration with EU, participate in the roles of identification and registration) the migrants are moved in CDA or CARA, which are governmental bodies, or SPRAR which are local bodies. However, in these structure there is not enough space for everyone, so there has been an overlapping by an “informal” provisional reception centre, called CAS (Extraordinary Reception Centre), this are governed by many different bodies, such as municipality, third sector or private sector. In this way, a situation of emergency compounded by the lack of accommodation space even of people owning a regular status, becomes a prime opportunity for the unscrupulous entrepreneur.

The second aspect involves the agrarian production model. As previously analysed, the development of agro-business through large-scale retail trade has created an exploitation of labour force, especially migrants. However, alternative models of production exist and they can have a real impact on the economic, social and cultural levels. Italy is acquiring support for the so-called peasant agriculture (agricoltura contadina), which envisages a chemical-free agricultural movement in order to give independence to landholders in relation to the prices of fertilisers, and also to show respect for the environment and the land on which the peasant is working. It also entails local production and small-scale farming, free from the great economic powers that operate on the market, and free from the powers that currently control prices (by lowering them) of fruit and vegetables, and do not allow new farms or young farmers to enter the market. In this way, the alternative model could also avoid the need of low-cost labour force, and consequently it avoids the exploitation of workers. Therefore, it is a real system of production that can create a decentralised distribution system of smaller dimensions that contrasts with the current large-scale retail trade. These alternatives were suggested to the Italian Parliament at the beginning of 2016 and it is now hightime for this discussion to take place, with the hope that an alternative production model can be recognised by the national legal framework as a solution for many problems occurring in the chain production system.


            This research paper highlighted the fact that many problems still surround and are face by the migrant labour force. It is an urgent and pressing issue, which needs addressing at national policy level. The lack of regulation and inspection in the fields allows for the interests of only a few people to benefit at the expense and exploitation of the weakest. The local and national authorities and other institutions are not currently concerned enough to guarantee the fundamental human rights of migrant workers and their integration in local communities, even though they represent a structural part of the agricultural economy and play a major role in the resilience of the family farming. Moreover, a more effective support system that secures better living conditions is of upmost importance. There are many documented violations of human rights in the industrialised countries, the same countries that refer to themselves as herald of social justice in the whole world.

However, it is not only an institutional problem. If European agricultural policies do not change, then any institutional effort will be useless. Nowadays, the peasant model of production is still resilient and produces much more than the industrial model. Moreover, it has been proven that in small-scale farms the irregular work is less probable due to a non-intensive use of the land and a model of production, which follows the natural rhythms of time and seasons. The large-scale retail trade system creates violence and oppression, because the system requires to squeezing of workers in order to be competitive in an internal market characterised by a stagnation of food consumption. In conclusion, both fundamental aspects go hand in hand and urgently need addressing: more robust policies and institutions for the protection and integration of immigrant workers, and a change in public policies supporting the peasant model of production are required to tackle the migrant workers’ issues.

[1] To see the full text: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:312242.

[2] To see the full text: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C143.

[3] Family farming is composed of two main aspects: the farm is owned by a family and the work is carried out by family members. However, the idea of family farming centres around a holistic view of production. It encompasses the way people farm and live; it’s a way of life and not just an economic aspect.

[4] In the text, the term “irregular” is preferred to “illegal” because the former stresses the fact that migrants are facing many obstacle to access a job in a regular way: refugees cannot work in Italy; all migrants have to wait long time before receiving a residency permit, so in this period they cannot work, or they are subjected to fake contracts that prevent them from the public assistance. The latter wording is used to refer to criminality or national security problems, which are not the case here.

[5] La Via Campesina is one of the biggest social movements of the world. It speaks on behalf of the millions of agrarian workers: men, women, young people, indigenous communities, fisheries and other workers related to the production of food. They try to support small-scale producers from around the world through actions that push for  national policies in recognition of their rights.

[6] Declaration of the 1st May 2015. See the original version in Spanish, available at: http://viacampesina.org/es/index.php/temas-principales-mainmenu-27/migraciones-y-trabajadores-rurales-mainmenu-41/2393-declaracion-de-la-via-campesina-sobre-la-migracion-y-los-trabajadores-rurales.

[7] People who are obliged to escape from their territories due to climate change and the consequent impossibility of living in an unproductive territory.

[8] This paragraph will be based on two important reports – one redacted by Medici Senza Frontiere (2008) and one by MEDU (2015) – on the conditions of migrant daily labourers in Southern Italy. The reports also acknowledge that migrants receive the same treatment in other Mediterranean States.

[9] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “The Right to Adequate Housing” , Fact Sheet No.21, Geneve (Switzerland), 2009. To see the full text: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_en.pdf.

[10] It comes from caporalato, which is a kind of exploitation that takes place within the harvesting sector. Originally, it was an ancient system of organisation for temporary agrarian jobs, whereby the daily labourers were organised into groups according to different requirements. It was based on the capacity of the caporale (who was usually an employee of the owner of the crop) on acquiring the right workers for the job in which there was a competition between the various businessmen of that area, and they conducted this job everyday. A caporale is a kind of mediator of manpower: historically male, he discusses the cost of the employee and keeps a part of that amount (taken from the owner of the crops or from the employee). Nowadays, it is linked to the illegal activity of exploitation of low-cost manpower, which works irregularly with wages much lower than the standard ones and without social provision.

[11] European Parliament – Directorate General for Internal Policies, “The Social and Employment Situation in Greece”, 2013.

[12] See: ISTAT 2000/2010/2013.

[13] See supra-note 9.


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