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Embrace migrant workers as rights holders essential to Italy’s agro-economy


12 October 2018


GENEVA/ROME (12 October 2018) - Migrant farm workers in parts of southern Italy are enduring extreme levels of labour exploitation and coercion, and inhumane working and living conditions, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery said today.

Ms. Urmila Bhoola, speaking at a news conference in Rome after a 10-day mission to Italy, said she was concerned that the basic needs of workers for water, sanitation and health care were not being met in informal settlements she visited.

The Special Rapporteur said it was a serious indictment that workers who generate billions of euros in agricultural exports are forced to live in shantytowns and work up to 14 hours a day.

“It raises serious questions about whether enough is being done to ensure the human rights and human dignity of migrant workers who are indispensable to Italy’s agro-economy,” Bhoola said.

It is estimated that more than 400,000 agricultural workers in Italy risk being exploited and almost 100,000 likely face inhumane conditions.

During her visit, the independent expert met Government officials, employer associations and trade unions, as well as exploited workers. She also visited farms, a temporary reception centre (CAS) for migrants, formal accommodation centres for migrant workers in Calabria, Apulia and Latina and the informal settlements of Borgo Mezzanone (Foggia) and of San Ferdinando (Calabria).

The informal settlements are far from farms and city centres and with no public transport, workers are exploited by caporali, private labour intermediaries who also provide transport.

“The caporalato system consists not only of labour brokers who supply irregular and regular migrants to farms but it is also said to be underpinned by a network of criminal syndicates and mafia groups who benefit from the exploitation in slavery-like conditions of migrant workers,” Bhoola said.

Most of the workers are from Sub Saharan Africa but in Latina province about 30,000 Sikh workers from India are subjected to extreme forms of coercion, including being forced to take performance-enhancing drugs – prohibited by their religion – so they could work the 10-14 hour days in the fields.

Other forms of coercion included physical and sexual violence or threats of violence, withholding of wages and documents, and threats to their families in their countries of origin if they refused to continue doing the illegal work, the Special Rapporteur said.

She commended Italy for amending its Penal Code in 2016 to prohibit caporalato and provide severe penalties for violations both by employers and caporali who exploit poor workers. Enforcement of this law, as well as increased prevention, protection and identification of victims and perpetrators, is key to addressing the human rights violations of migrant workers, she said.

The Special Rapporteur’s report on the country visit and recommendations will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2019. 


Ms Urmila Bhoola (South Africa) was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, in June 2014. She is independent from any government and serves in her individual capacity. Ms. Bhoola is a former Judge of the Labour Court of South Africa. Her judicial appointment followed twenty years of work as a labour and human rights lawyer in South Africa, and she has received many awards for her human rights and gender equality work. She has also been a technical advisor to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on labour rights in the Asia Pacific region and was Chief Legal Drafter of South Africa's Employment Equity Act, designed to redress disadvantages caused by apartheid. Her most recent report to the Human Rights Council focuses on the impact of slavery and servitude on marginalized migrant women workers in the global domestic economy.

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 organization 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: Satya Jennings at +39 351 136 6302 or write to [email protected]
In Geneva, after the visit: +41 22 97 72 or write to [email protected].

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:Jeremy Laurence – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])  

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