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Bloody Tomatoes in Brexit Times

Camilla Macciani, MA Migration and Diaspora Studies

Walking through Tesco’s corridors, as the day of Brexit gets closer, many might think of what will be left on the shelves after the UK leaves the European Union. With still uncertain trade arrangements, supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsburys do not yet know which suppliers will be available in the case of a no-deal Brexit. The issue of food supplies has emerged as one of the most pragmatic and tangible concerns, to such an extent that retailers and even hundreds of people have started stockpiling food in the event of a no-deal scenario. While the UK government have reassured people that there wouldn’t be any food shortage, a no-deal Brexit will have dramatic consequences on food supplies: at least one third of the food on British tables comes from the EU, with shares that reach 80-90 percent for fresh vegetables and fruits. If free trade is not achieved at the last stages of the negotiation process, the price of food imported from EU will considerably increase, partly falling on consumers’ backs.
As suggested by the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) President, Mrs. Minette Batters, this is a vital moment to talk about food supplies’ sustainability and home-grown food. However, while acknowledging the importance of preserving EU high-quality standards after Brexit, no mention has been made about the ethics of EU food production.
This does not come as a great surprise since concerns regarding labour exploitation within the agricultural sector have not yet received any level of public attention comparable to that attained by organic food and its environmental sustainability. Nevertheless, they should.

If the chance of a no-deal Brexit compels us to think how food prices might increase, we’d better reflect upon why some were so low in the first place.

Going back to our Tesco’s corridors and stopping in front of tomato sauce shelves, we find different brands sponsoring the unique Italian taste of their products, evoking romanticized ideas of Sunday lunches with old grannies cooking pasta for the whole family, under the shiny hot sun. Some of their labels state: “hand selected at their sweetness”. No doubt this is true, but at what cost?

During the last year, at least 21 migrant workers died in Southern Italy, due to precarious living and working conditions and institutional neglection. The last victim was Moussa Ba, 28 years-old from Senegal, who died in the night between the 15th and the 16th of February, after another fire spread in the shanty town near San Ferdinando (Calabria), where around 800 seasonal workers live. Last summer, two different car crashes near Foggia (Puglia) resulted in the death of 16 day-labourers who were going back “home” after a day working in the fields. While these episodes might seem like mere accidents, they are indicators of a rotten system of production which is spread all around Italy.

The Italian agricultural sector is dominated by a system of recruitment and exploitation named ‘caporalato’ (illegal gang-master trade) within which workers are usually paid daily and at piece rates. According to the latest report “Agro-mafie e Caporalato” published by Flai-Cgil (2018), of the 1.2 million workers employed within Italian agriculture, at least 700,000 are suffering severe exploitation. Of them, almost 400,000 are employed through “caporalato” and 80 percent of them are migrants – largely from Eastern-Europe, India (Punjabi region) and many different African countries. The “caporale”, who is sometimes a previous worker himself, manages and controls the workforce, transports workers to the field and charges them for any service, such as food, water and shelters. Workers often get paid little more than what they need for survival (from 20 to 30 euros for 12 hours long working days) and, in certain instances, working conditions have been close to slavery, with workers not getting paid at all.
In the last decade, Italian media coverage and public attention around this issue has grown exponentially, especially after two major strikes took place in 2011 and 2016, which resulted in the approval of two laws aimed at fighting the phenomenon. Furthermore, in response to a petition launched by The World Trade Unions, European institutions have recently condemned the neglect of the Italian government in effectively tackling the degrading working and living conditions faced by thousands of migrant workers in the province of Foggia — where most of the tomatoes used for Italian tomato sauce are harvested.

While these are all important steps forward, it must be highlighted that they often tend to frame the issue only in terms of the misconduct and criminal behaviour of the “employers”, somehow detracting attention from the responsibility of the entire supply chain. Indeed, by looking closer at the prices of Italian tomato sauce on our Tesco’s shelves, it can be noticed that they all range from 30p to 1£ per tin.

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