This week it was revealed that UK supermarket chains have been sourcing products which use exploitative, enforced labour. These supermarkets stack their selves with products from two Italian food giants, Mutti and Conserve Italia, which had used labour under ‘conditions of absolute exploitation’, and then sold their premium tinned tomatoes and passata in the UK. But is this simply something we must turn a blind eye to for our cheap food?
The claims were first aired when an immigrant labourer from Sudan, forty-seven year old father of two Abdullah Muhammad, suffered a heart attack whilst working in the tomato fields of Nardó in southern Italy in June 2015. The argument against his employers was that Abdullah was denied medical treatment and had a strong chance of survival if he had been permitted to see a doctor. An Italian prosecutor, Paola Guglielmi, had been able to use her legal powers to track the supply network of the tomato produce industry.
Her report found that labourers like Abdullah would start their day at 4am picking fresh tomatoes in the fields by hand, not finishing until 5pm. Meaning they would work through the intense heat of the Southern Italian summer, considering that this summer Italy suffered a heatwave so severe a glacier melted for the first time in ninety years. Guglielmi also discovered labourers would earn as little as 30 euros a day, and half of that would need to be paid back to the farm heads for transport, food, shelter, and water. The files accuse the owners of manslaughter.
Labourers like Abdullah would start their day at 4am picking fresh tomatoes in the fields by hand, not finishing until 5pm
However, is this just something we must turn a blind eye too for our cheap food in a globalised world? One may think so, however both Mutti and Conserve Italia both sell premium products. It’s not what we might expect from premium brands which cost more on supermarket shelves, and which many consumers expect to be ethical anyway, considering the price they pay. Premium products don’t necessarily come with the tag of being produced by exploitative labour.
What this shows is that we cannot rely on employers, or expect corporations to maintain their own ethical standards independently. Despite Guglielmi’s investigation, Mutti claimed in a statement that “Mutti has always been committed to fight any exploitation of workers’ systems by all means” whereas Conserve Italia said in a statement that it plans to sue the prosecution “to protect its reputation as the most ethical company in this business”. Clearly, this isn’t borne out by the mounting court documents.
We cannot rely on employers, or expect corporations to maintain their own ethical standards independently
The answer to this is simple. If we want products produced fairly on a mass scale we must begin to seriously support international trade unions, such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and these must be encouraged by our governments and institutions, such as the EU. Only then can we know our products are produced fairly and safely, and know what we are really paying for.