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Italy: Food system exploits smallholder farmers and workers - UN food expert

Italian version

ROME (31 January 2020) – Despite an estimated GDP of USD 2.84 trillion, world-renowned innovative businesses, a large agriculture sector and modern manufacturing capabilities, Italy's workers and smallholder farmers are bearing heavy burdens and are being exploited by the sophisticated Italian food system, a visiting UN human rights expert said today.

Italy is a strong supporter of international human rights mechanisms and an active player in the global food policy. "Italy is very active in promoting human rights internationally, in particular the right to food, but this does not altogether resonate nationally," said Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, as she concluded her 11-day visit to the country.

"I have spoken with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, agricultural workers who work excessively long hours under difficult conditions and with a salary too low to cover their basic needs, undocumented migrant workers who are left in limbo with no access to regular jobs nor the possibility of renting a decent place to live, and students who do not have access to school canteens because their families are too poor to pay for it," Elver said.

"As a developed country and the third largest economy in Europe, such levels of poverty and food insecurity in Italy are unacceptable. The Italian Government should understand food charity is not to be confused with right to food."

Agricultural migrant workers are one of the most vulnerable groups. Between 450,000 to 500,000 migrant are working in Italy's agricultural sector, representing about half of its total workforce. Agriculture is often the only sector in which low-skilled workers can find employment. The highest share of illegal workers in relation to the total number of migrant workers is found in agriculture.

"From the north to the south of Italy, hundreds of thousands of workers farm the land or take care of livestock without adequate legal and social protections, coping with insufficient salaries and living under the constant threat of losing their job, being forcibly repatriated or becoming the object of physical and moral violence," the expert said. "Seasonal and non-seasonal workers often find in the caporalato system the sole possibility to sell their labour and obtain payment."

The caporalato system consists of outsourcing the recruitment of temporary workers to intermediaries and is accused of being exploitative. "With the law 199/2016 against labour exploitation, Italy has extended the scope of the existing provision against caporalato. However, the law appears unable to uphold the human rights of all farmworkers, in particular undocumented migrants, who are kept in a condition of invisibility and fear," said Elver.

Exploitation of workers is not the only way in which illegality intervenes in the Italian food system. Contaminated products being dumped in rural areas, burned or poured into rivers; wholesale markets where farmers are forced to accept prices so low as to threaten their livelihood; purchases of land with proceeds from illegal activities; the frequent use of counterfeit and toxic fertilizers imported or manufactured in Italy and often sprayed by workers without adequate knowledge and safety measures are some of the other common illegal practices.

"The increase in large-scale retailing has led to a significant reshaping of the food sector, as major distribution chains control the majority of the market and impose low prices that small-scale farmers cannot match," the expert said.

The adoption of the 2018 Decree on security and immigration, known as the "Salvini Decree", has contributed to an increase in the number of undocumented migrant workers, accelerated the illegalization of asylum seekers and pushed people further into illegal work without any labour protection. "There are now about 680,000 undocumented migrants, twice as many as existed only five years ago," Elver said.

The Special Rapporteur travelled to ten cities in the regions of Lazio, Lombardy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Apulia and Sicily and met with local authorities, representatives of civil society organisations, academics, migrant workers, traders, food producers, small-scale farmers and agricultural workers.

"I also had the opportunity to discuss access to school canteens with academics, teachers and students. They expressed the urgent need to establish a national framework for school feeding programmes to combat disparities among municipalities and ensure that all students have access to canteens, despite their families' economic situation."


Ms Hilal Elver (Turkey) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food by the Human Rights Council in 2014. She is a Research Professor, and co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy housed at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies and global distinguished fellow at the University of California Los Angeles Law School (UCLA) Resnick Food Law and Policy Center. 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Italy

For more information and press inquiries, please contact:

In Italy (during the visit): Patricia Varela (+41 76 691 0826 / pvarela@ohchr.org)

Press contact, Italy: Fabio Graziosi, UNRIC (+39 347 5933445 / italy@unric.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts: The Media Unit (+ 41 22 928 9855 / mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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