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Business and Human Rights in the Agri-food Industry: The Case of Migrant Workers

November 23, 2020


Sara Pennicino, Professor, SAIS Europe; University of Padua

Laura Safer Espinoza, Fair Food Standards Council

Yvan Sagnet, NoCap, Italy

Nina Luzzatto Gardner, Professor, Johns Hopkins SAIS

The Bologna Institute for Policy Research (BIPR) hosted a virtual seminar on business and human rights in the agri-food industry, taking a closer look at migrant workers. After showing a trailer of “The Invisibles”, a recently released documentary on migrant workers from Africa working in the fields of Italy directed by Diana Ferrero and Carola Mamberto for the Doha Debates, Nina Gardner of Johns Hopkins SAIS-DC set the scene by commenting on how the global pandemic has made people in lockdown more aware of where their food comes from and the exploitative conditions these ‘essential workers’ in the agricultural sector are living in.

Yvan Sagnet of NoCap, Italy, and Laura Safer Espinoza of Fair Foods Standards Council shared their insights on the striking similarity between the documentary and ongoing issues today. Sagnet highlighted the disconnect between our obsession over food safety, and the lack of awareness regarding the harsh working and living conditions of those who harvest our food NoCap, the association and network Sagnet founded, works to fight gang master systems (aka known in Italian as caporalato) and the exploitation of migrant workers.

NoCap goes beyond protests and boycotts and focuses on market-based solutions, which the group concluded was one of the most effective strategies to overcome the human rights abuses in fields. The issue of exploited migrant workers in Italy is very complex, where gang masters are not the sole challenge but a problematic part of the supply chain that preys on people within a failed economic system. Sagnet suggested that simplifying the agricultural supply chain by eliminating middle men -- putting the supermarket chains and distributers directly in touch with farm owners -- would help eliminate gang masters, decrease the exploitation of migrant workers, and provide a living wage, while not increasing prices for consumers. He also advocated the adoption of a labeling system which could provide consumers with greater transparency and traceability regarding wage and working conditions on farms.

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza provided an overview of the accomplishments of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, based in Florida in eliminating some of the worst challenges in the agricultural sector there regarding labor conditions, including forced labor, violence and sexual harassment against women in the fields and systemic wage theft. Through years of campaigning, the Coalition has achieved legally binding agreements with 14 major food retailers, which commit them to pay a premium that is passed through as a bonus to workers, and to purchase from growers certified by the Fair Food Standards Council (the program’s monitoring organization), to be implementing the program’s Code of Conduct. Fair Food Program carries out education for workers on their rights under the Code, conducts audits, maintains a 24/7 complaint hot-line with rapid response mechanisms, and enforces safe policies backed by prompt market consequences. She described how the Fair Food Program has extended to seven other states in the US and is now in talks with growers in California – the largest agricultural state in the US. She added that COVID-19 truly exposed societal fault lines in the US, and deepened hardships due to inequality. While, in general, there have been minimal provisions made for migrant workers during the pandemic -- such as access to safety equipment, COVID testing, and the ability to socially distance -- thankfully the Fair Food Program was able to establish the first mandatory, privately enforceable set of standards for COVID-19 prevention and response in U.S. agriculture.

Nina Gardner concluded by urging the listeners on the webinar to become conscious consumers – and to put as much energy into researching whether the products and produce they buy are ethically sourced than they do when buying “bio” or organic.