Deceived, enslaved, exploited, battered, raped: these are hardly the ﬁrst words that come to mind when tucking into a salad, yet our fruit and vegetables can hide a disturbing past. The debate about our food industry is ﬁxated on animal rights and environmental issues. However, a closer look at our food system shows that a vegan diet has no claim to the “cruelty free” label. The systematic exploitation of humans in harvesting remains a topic shrouded in deafening silence.
July 2010. Temperatures in Southern Italy are torrid. The local population is tucked away in the sanctuary of their homes and ofﬁces. Towns are silent and static. The only sounds escaping the shuttered windows are the voices of TV newscast reports, as they bleat governmental advice on how to escape the impending doom of heat stroke and dehydration. Temperatures are peaking. Isolated from residential areas, an invisible and silent army labours under the blazing sun. Though their stories vary, they are all bound by the common thread of desperation, poverty and exploitation. Meet the modern–day slaves behind your fruit and vegetables. It was 2010 when this phenomenon ﬁrst garnered a glimmer of the attention it deserved. African seasonal workers in Rosarno, a small town in the region of Calabria, revolted against their abhorrent living and working conditions. The trigger? The senseless shooting of one of their colleagues. The situation degenerated into chaos and violence. Suddenly, a light was shone on the systematic enslavement of men and women who are often lured by the promise of fair employment. As the media crowded the town, tales of daily beatings, malnutrition and squalid barracks ﬂooded national and international media. However, the issue had already been thoroughly investigated and reported. In 2006, Fabrizio Gatti, an Italian journalist of the notorious L’Espresso, posed as a migrant worker in the region of Apulia. The ﬁrst question he was asked revealed the horrors he faced: “Do you have a [female] friend?’ – the gangmaster enquired – ‘you need to take her to the master”. Immediately, the price to become a worker was made clear: rape. The supervisor soon pointed to a nearby worker: “she has been with the master”, he noted. This was only the beginning.
workers’ stories vary, they are all bound by the thread of desperation
It is the season of the “red gold”, when tomatoes are ripe and ready to be picked. Thousands of migrants come looking for seasonal work. Whilst some are Italian, there is a growing number from Eastern Europe, especially Romania, Albania and Bulgaria. Others are Africans from countries such as Morocco, Ghana and Sudan. Though some have entered the country legally, others have reached Italy by making the dangerous “journey of hope” across the Mediterranean on rickety boats. They are soon trapped in a vicious cycle of abuse and exploitation. Shifts routinely exceed eight hours a day in oppressive temperatures and salaries are often half the national minimum wage, with workers making around 20 to 30 pounds a day. From these measly wages the cost of (inadequate) food and water must be deducted, alongside transport fees to and from the ﬁelds and rent to live in squalid barracks. Entire families live there, including minors. A report issued in November 2015 by CGIL (General Italian Confederation of Workers – one of Italy’s main trade unions) and FLAI (Federation of Food Industry Workers) described migrants as living in ‘subhuman and depersonalising conditions, at times almost beastly’. Upon visiting a camp in 2008, Amnesty International spoke of “unmitigated squalor” as the stench of the nearby open-air latrines, dug at the margins of the camp, ﬁlled the camp’s air.
Violence and beatings are endemic: the slightest mishap or potential rebellion is met with beatings so ferocious they have lead to the disappearance of workers. Nobody is spared. Gatti reported that a 20 year old woman was forced to toil under the blazing sun at eight months pregnant. Needless to say, after bleeding for two days in a shack, she delivered a dead baby in a local hospital. Subjected to such abuse, workers’ health plummets. Organisations such as Emergency and Doctors for Human Rights have reported widespread poisoning, muscular issues and gastrointestinal infections due to lack of protection against pesticides. It is estimated that 74 per cent of workers fall ill and gangmasters usually ﬁne ill workers. Emergency volunteers are often stationed outside the camps to provide care that should be provided for free by the National Health Care Service. Unsurprisingly, the media occasionally picks up on workers dying of exhaustion, though trade unions estimate the actual number of deaths must be much higher.
The issue is hardly a marginal one. Over 400,000 seasonal workers in Italy work under the caporalato (or ‘gangmaster’) system – over half of the 700,000 seasonal workers employed each year Despite being made illegal in 2011, caporalato is thriving across Italy and forces over 100,000 people to live and work as slaves.
This is hardly an ‘Italian problem’ to be dismissed with stereotypes of organised crime and economic turmoil. Italy is a ﬁrst world country and the main producer of tomatoes on the European and Australian market. It also tops the charts for the production of olives, olive oil, wine, apples, peaches and citrus fruits and many others. In other words, it is virtually impossible to avoid Italian produce and countries boasting the same exports have been found to employ the same practices. In fact, the issue is alive and kicking in much of the ﬁrst world. A 2009 OECD paper described an agricultural sector riddled with human trafﬁcking and abuse in all 56 countries surveyed, a problem caused by common vulnerabilities and legal loopholes. From Ireland to the USA, the ﬁrst world fails to address the seasonal and physically demanding nature of agriculture, which is low-paid and usually in isolated locations.
The UK is no exception. In 2007 a Lithuanian journalist posed as a worker willing to work abroad. After being promised fair employment, he was sent to a farm in North Yorkshire, where he was stripped of his money and documents, forced to work inhumane hours and housed in squalid buildings. Within a few weeks, an emotionally stable man had been transformed into a suicidal wreck.
Google ‘cruelty free food’ and a plethora of vegan dishes will appear. As veganism gains pace, the equation of ‘cruelty-free’ and ‘vegan’ is going mainstream. It is worrying and problematic: this cruelty-free label rarely includes any discussion concerning the origin of fruits, vegetables and grains. Branding produce as ‘cruelty-free’ simply because it is not an animal product refuses to recognise the pain endured by these workers, who are already almost invisible. Lacking any representation and often framed as more expendable and less “grievable” these workers disproportionately suffer the cost of racism and classism. The association of the term ‘cruelty-free’ with vegan dishes is a grotesque contrast.
The issue is ultimately transparency in supply chains. We cannot boycott our way into a “cruelty-free” zone: the products of slave labour are often indistinguishable from their more ethical counterparts. Even leading anti human-trafﬁcking philanthropist and founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar , failed to detect such a case. Omidyar invested large sums of money in a pineapple plantation in Hawaii, which was subsequently exposed as being part of the Global Horizons scandal, the largest human trafﬁcking case in US history. Choosing products based on location also doesn’t work. Leading anti-slavery organisations have warned against boycotting speciﬁc areas, as this is likely to harm ethical enterprises which are already exposed to unfair competition (as their rivals pay their workforce next to nothing) and economic vulnerability – a key factor in exploitation. Local produce doesn’t imply cruelty-free, as highlighted by the recent Modern Day Slavery Forum hosted at the University of Exeter. Shaun Sawyer, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall and national policing lead for modern slavery, was quick to point out how trafﬁcking and abuse had been found in Devon’s agricultural sector. This is unsurprising, as trafﬁcking is proﬁtable and hard to detect – making it organised crime’s preferred offence.
WE CANNOT BOYCOTT OUR WAY INTO A “CRUELTY-FREE” ZONE
Nonetheless, there is some progress. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires all businesses to issue a yearly report detailing the presence of slavery at any stage in their production chain and if any steps have been taken to address the issue. Companies are eagerly seizing the opportunity to gain positive publicity. Nonetheless, the issue remains pressing for products sourced abroad, especially in impoverished countries where slavery is rife. Chocolate is a representative example. People are aware that it takes more than a vegan label to make chocolate ethical, as child slavery is rife in cocoa plantations in West Africa and Brazil, where most raw cocoa comes from. Many international corporations – such as Mars – have come under ﬁre for declaring they were unaware where their materials came from.
Sadly, the rest of the agricultural market remains neglected. The vegan narrative – one which relies so heavily on the “cruelty free” label – is inadvertently amplifying romantic notions of crop-harvesting. The risk is that as companies seek to proﬁt from the equation of veganism and cruelty-free, the marketing machine will make this notion so widespread it will be impossible to shatter. These workers have no voice: it is our duty to recognise their deaths are in our salads.