FEATURES » The tin of tomato sauce supply chain

The tin of tomato sauce supply chain

When we buy a tin of tomato sauce we don’t often think about the labour process which allowed its creation, along the entire supply chain. We are becoming increasingly aware of the ingredients of the products we buy, but do we really know if the labour involved complied with the protection and security of the workers?

The tomato industry has been frequently accused of taking advantage of migrants forced to work in slave-like conditions.

In July 2015, Abdullah Muhammed, a 47-year-old legal Sudanese immigrant died from a heart attack while working in the fields of Nardó, in southern Italy. Allegedly the man would have been saved if he had been allowed to see a doctor. Muhammed worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, without breaks, with no access to medical staff and earning an average of €30 a day.

The death of Abdullah Muhammed led to an investigation in the Italian tomato industry, food giants Mutti and Conserve Italia were implicated in labour abuses of migrants. The companies were considered not liable for the death, but their link was significant. According to the Italian prosecutor Paola Guglielmi the person responsible for the crime by law was just the gangmaster, but in this case, it was also manslaughter because the man would not have died if he had seen a doctor. Therefore, there was a flagrant violation of the safety provisions on the job. The preliminary investigation has now concluded, and a judge will decide whether the case should go to trial.

The companies involved emphasised the extent to which they encourage their suppliers to treat their workers ethically. They said it wasn’t their responsibility to verify what happens in the workplace, but they asked their suppliers to respect human rights, they also said they didn’t pay their suppliers less than the usual price.

Conserve Italia declared that it plans to sue the suppliers for damages to protect its reputation as the most ethical company in this business.

 In 2016, After years of campaigning and organising a mass strike against the gang masters, a strengthened law outlawing the “caporalato”, the gangmasters system, came into effect. The law against the “caporalato”, punishes gangmasters and owners of farms with severe punishment (up to company confiscation) but does not identify any liability of the companies along the supply chain. In the United Kingdom, the situation is somewhat different: “The Modern slavery act”, approved in 2015, expects companies with a turnover of over £ 36 million to demonstrate that there has been no exploitation at any stage in their supply chain. The law therefore requires, and in a certain sense imposes, great attention on large industrial and commercial chains on what happens at the base of the production process, and establishes a much more active role than the one currently provided for by Italian legislation and other European countries.

Since 2005, the British government has created the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, a licensing authority for the people in charge of providing workers for the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industry. This helped to combat exploitation of workers in the fresh produce sector.

However, the online version of the magazine “Internazionale” reported that the UK Princes group has concluded supply contracts with the farm where Abdullah Muhamed died in 2015. Princes is owned by the Japanese giant Mitsubishi and provides much of the large British, French and German distribution. In addition to the Napolina brand, which can be found in many supermarkets in the UK, it assures the production of several trademarks that are sold under the supermarkets’ own brand.

Giulia Lombardo

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