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Statements Special Procedures

Statement at the end of visit to Italy by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights

06 October 2021

Rome, 6 October 2021



The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights concluded today its ten-day visit to Italy. We thank the Government of Italy for the invitation and its support for a smooth facilitation of the visit during 27 September to 6 October 2021. We also thank representatives of the Government, civil society, business, industry associations, trade unions, workers, academia, lawyers, United Nations agencies and other stakeholders who met us to discuss about progress, challenges and opportunities to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in Italy in an open and constructive dialogue.

During our visit, the Working Group met with the Inter-ministerial Committee for Human Rights, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the National Contact Point (NCP) in the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, and the Ministry of Culture. We met the Department for Equal Opportunities-Presidency of the Council of Ministries, and the National Office against Racial Discrimination (UNAR). At the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, we met the National Labour Inspectorate, the National Counselor for Equal Opportunities and the Carabinieri Corps Command for labour protection. The Working Group also met the Ministry for Ecological Transition, the Ministry of Justice, including the Deputy of the Minister of Justice involved in the draft law on national human rights institution, and the Ministry of Health. At the Senate, we met with members of the Extraordinary Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, the President of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into Working Conditions in Italy, Exploitation and Safety in Public and Private Workplaces, as well as the President of the Permanent Committee on Human Rights in the World of Chamber of Deputies.
The Working Group also met the President of Puglia Region, the Deputy Mayor and the Public Prosecutor of Avellino, as well as the Mayor of Taranto, and the Territorial Labour Inspectorate in Prato.

The following sections of this end of the mission statement highlight preliminary findings and recommendations based on information that has been brought to the attention of the Working Group during the visit. A final report of this country visit to the 50th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2022 will contain further observations and recommendations.

Context of the visit

This visit of the Working Group was significant for several reasons. This was our first visit to any State after the COVID-19 pandemic started. While the sanitary restrictions posed several logistical challenges, they also opened up some innovative pathways in terms of hybrid meetings. Italy has been one of the hardest hit European countries by COVID-19 and we saw the effects of the pandemic on its economy, business and people, especially marginalised or vulnerable communities. The Government of Italy as well as healthcare and frontline service professionals should be commended for their efforts to respond to unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19.

The visit also coincided with the Government’s ongoing process to adopt a revised National Action Plan on business and human rights (NAP), as well as Italy’s Presidency of G20. Moreover, this was the first time that the Working Group had visited any Western European country. Against this background, the Government of Italy has an opportunity to show its leadership in promoting responsible business conduct at national, regional and global levels.       

Law and policy framework and ongoing challenges  

Italy has an extensive legislative framework in several areas related to business and human rights, including labour rights, anti-discrimination, occupational health and safety, and the environment. It also has a generally strong system of labour rights protection for workers across sectors and a strong and active trade union movement. For example, Legislative Decree 231/2001 provides for a direct liability of legal entities for a closed list of crimes committed by their representatives. Legislative Decree 81/2008 defines a clear institutional set-up, so that the Government is responsible for drawing up national policies and strategies for health and safety in the workplace and provides support and guidelines for prevention activities carried out at various levels.

Italy was among the first States adopting a NAP and to initiate a mid-term review of progress in implementing it. A consultative process to inform the revised NAP for 2022-2027 has just been concluded and the Working Group learned of numerous positive practices by the Government to meet its obligation to protect people and the environment from business-related harm. The Government has also developed a National Recovery and Resilience Plan and the Sustainable Development Plan.  

Nevertheless, as in other countries, several significant challenges remain that the Government should take urgent steps to resolve in the short-term, while developing plans to address systemic problems in the medium and long-term. Some of these challenges (for example, the treatment of workers, including migrant workers across different sectors) serve to tarnish the reputation of Italy in the field of business and human rights and should be immediately addressed to protect the rights of individuals in highly vulnerable positions. Some laws require revision to make them truly fit for purpose, while in some key respects, even where legislation is adequate, implementation remains lacking and effective access to remedy for abuses is often absent.

The Working Group was encouraged by the commitment shown by many Government ministries and departments whom it met to implement the UNGPs. However, it is clear that greater efforts should be made to raise awareness and build capacity of all stakeholders, including Government officials, judges, lawyers, business enterprises, trade unions, and civil society organisations. We welcome various initiatives by bar associations, academics and lawyers to conduct training and awareness raising workshops, but these should be significantly enhanced.   

Impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges to both the Government and businesses. Few countries have suffered more from the pandemic, and the Government should be commended for its efforts to develop sector specific protocols for prevention, protection, and recovery based on data and risk matrix produced by the Ministry of Health. The Working Group was informed that COVID-related deaths were treated as accidents in the workplace, thus qualifying the families of victims to seek compensation. However, it seems that migrant workers were either not aware of this policy or did not get any compensation. The COVID pandemic has shown the importance of the Government’s provision of free and universal healthcare to all individuals, including undocumented workers. This is a welcome model to be followed by other States.

At the same time, important lessons must be learned to enable Italy to build back better and address systemic challenges and inequalities that COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated. For instance, the Working Group learned that women and migrant workers have been disproportionately affected by job losses due to the pandemic. Concerns were also raised about the impact of technological tools used to trace and locate COVID-19 cases on the right to privacy. Moreover, the access to vaccines may not be enjoyed equally in practice by marginalised communities such as migrant and undocumented workers.

Small and medium-size enterprises

Italy is a country with many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). According to official figures, 78.7 per cent of the total number of employees in companies in Italy work in SMEs. The role of SMEs will therefore be critical in breaking the cycle of labour exploitation that we noticed in Italy.

While the UNGPs apply to all business enterprises, the Working Group acknowledges that SMEs face unique challenge in implementing human rights due diligence processes and establishing effective operational-level grievance mechanisms. We heard the challenges of Italian SMEs in ensuring respect for human rights and the environment across supply chains and beyond tier 1, particularly when suppliers are SMEs too. The Government of Italy should take multiple measures including raising awareness, building capacity and offering incentives to SMEs to promote responsible business conduct. The business associations in Italy should also work with SMEs to develop suitable human rights due diligence tools and conduct peer learning workshops.

Labour rights

Occupational health and safety issues remain a major concern. The Working Group was deeply concerned to learn that only between January and August 2021, 772 workers lost their lives, 10 had died during just the first few days of its visit to Italy, while 571,000 injuries occurred in 2020. The Government should take all possible measures to prevent loss of lives and any injury to all workers. The Working Group also heard that some workers in the agricultural sector are not provided with adequate safety equipment while using pesticides and chemicals, thus exposing them to harmful effects. Moreover, any form of sexual harassment or gender-based violence in the workplace must be treated as an occupation health and safety issue and a zero-tolerance approach should be adopted in this context. Because of the pandemic, the relevant government authorities should also consider occupational health and safety issues also in relation to remote working.

A system of inspectorates, including in the areas of labour, health, and occupational health and safety, performs essential functions to help to ensure that all relevant laws are observed at work. However, the National Inspector for Safety in the Workplace is understaffed and under-resourced. According to official data, as of 31 December 2020, there were only 3,000 public inspectors in Italy. Although the recruitment of additional 2,000 inspectors was announced for 2021, the numbers are still too low when compared to the extent of the problem of labour exploitation across sectors. The inability of inspectorates to carry our adequate number of inspections proactively or respond rapidly to complaints received allows malpractice to go unchallenged. Concerns were also raised about coordination among the inspectorates from different institutions. 

Italy has a significant population of migrant workers coming from numerous countries, including from Africa and Asia, both documented and undocumented, as well as asylum seekers. According to the information received between 2014-2021, 700,000 migrants arrived, with a peak in 2016 with 181,000 people.  The estimated number of migrants with no legal status as of 1 January 2020 was 517,000.  The migrant workers work in numerous sectors, including the agricultural sector where they perform various tasks related to fruit and vegetable harvesting. Although these migrant workers are essential for Italy’s economy to grow and prosper, their treatment falls far below the national standards expected of a highly developed European country as well as international standards. During the visit, the Working Group visited camps where migrant agricultural workers live, including Agro Pontino in Lazio Region and Borgo Mezzanone and Rignano Garganico in Foggia in Puglia Region. The delegation met workers, union representatives, non-governmental organisations and cultural mediators providing support to those workers. Apart from being forced to leave in inhumane conditions, these workers work on short contracts, work for excessively long hours with no weekly holiday, face racial discrimination, and see no prospect for integration in Italian society.

While the story of labour abuse in the agribusiness and other sectors is complex, sustainable solutions must be found that have the human rights and dignity of workers at their core and which would provide a gateway to full integration of workers into society, with the possibility of family reunification. The Working Group learned of an initiative in one region to house migrant workers in uninhabited buildings, which would constitute a positive step towards such goals. A system of “cultural mediators” also constitutes a positive practice, though it should be adequately resourced and institutionalised to ensure their regular presence in various localities, rather than being reliant on short term project funding.  

The Working Group was also informed by several sources of the practice by supermarkets of “double-bidding” for produce to force artificially low prices from producers. This puts pressure on producers to reduce costs in order to maintain profits, which ultimately results in further exploitation of already poorly paid workers. Some cooperative practices involving retailers, suppliers, unions and workers have sought to address this problem and ensure that prices better reflect the true cost of production and that workers’ rights are protected. As consumers too have an important role to play, efforts should be undertaken and promoted to ensure that they are aware of ethical and human rights concerns relating to the products on their supermarket shelves. Moreover, the Ministry of Agriculture and other relevant ministries should take rigorous steps to ensure that no sale is taking place below the recommended average weekly price. The Working Group strongly recommends supermarkets to stop the practice of double bidding and take collective steps to ensure that all workers in their supply chains are paid minimum wages.

In Milan, the Working Group met workers engaged in the logistics sectors (including those working in warehouses, distribution centres, call centres and transport) and their union representatives. They described numerous ways in which workers, particularly migrant workers, are exploited and underpaid for long hours worked. These workers are also vulnerable to abuse, including sexual abuse and harassment of women workers. While often performing work for large multi-national companies, it is a common practice for them to be recruited through agencies or cooperatives that employ illegal or unethical recruitment practices. They are often on temporary contracts and may be called upon to work for many more hours than their pay slips declare. The precarious situation of many such workers means that they have little choice but to comply with exploitative employment terms. It seems that Italy’s restrictive policies on lawful hiring of immigrant workers also contributes to this exploitative cycle. 

The Working Group learned of similar exploitative practices, especially of migrant workers, in the garment and textile industry in Prato. Workers consistently described unduly long working hours amounting to 12-14 hours, 7 days a week as a standard practice in Chinese-owned businesses. These workers either have no contract or their contracts stipulate working hours in line with the national legal framework. Workers also described how daily work cycle left them with no time to learn the Italian language or to participate in any activities that would facilitate their integration into society. These grave abuses and exploitation are facilitated by unfair purchasing practices of contracting companies and fashion brands. Lack of transparency in supply chains also means that it is quite difficult to identify beneficiaries of such exploitative labour practices.

The Working Group would like to stress that instead of benefitting from cheap labour costs while maintaining a distance from any wrongdoing in recruitment and labour practices, all business enterprises should conduct regular human rights due diligence and remediate these abuses in line with the UNGPs. Businesses should also refrain from using corporate structures for tax evasion purposes. The role of independent trade unions is critical to assist (migrant) workers from breaking the ongoing cycle of exploitation. The Working Group commends the activities and support of local unions to such highly vulnerable workers and would like the national trade unions to offer more assistance to these workers. We also express our concerns about certain local trade union leaders facing reprisals and intimidation for standing up against exploitative labour practices or organising peaceful strikes.

The Caporalato system

The Working Group learned about the criminal “Caporalato” system of recruitment of workers in a number of sectors including agribusiness and garment. We welcome initiatives underway to stamp out this persistent system of labour exploitation and abuse. These include a national law that encompasses, among others, civil and criminal liability for both recruiters and employers that employ workers who were unlawfully recruited (Legislative Decree 199/2016). In 2018, Legislative Decree No. 119 established the “Tavolo caporalato”, a body inclusive of representatives of national and local institutions, social partners, third sector associations, as well as a Three-Year Plan (2020-22) to combat labour exploitation in agriculture and caporalato.

However, according to information received, between 400,000 and 430,000 workers in the agriculture sector are illegally employed under a gang master system.  Migrant and Italian workers fall under the exploitative control of gang-masters, sometimes due to their vulnerable status, lack of documents, or desperate circumstances and poverty, and frequently fall into a cycle of debt-bondage. Those who conduct the abuse are commonly from the very communities that they are abusing with recruitment agents active in countries of origin. In other words, the roots and networks of exploitation are also present in the countries of origin in Asia and Africa. Many workers recruited and controlled by Caporalato earn far below the minimum legal wage and have to pay high costs, in thousands of Euros, for permits and other “charges” that should be free to these essential workers. The camps and communities are highly isolated and lack transport links, garbage collection or any kind of service provision. Some workers are also encouraged to take drugs to avoid fatigue linked to long working hours.

Several stakeholders described the situation of migrant workers as one of occupational blackmail under which, because of their vulnerable situation in regard to work contracts, residency and “stay permits”, workers have no choice but to work under conditions of extreme exploitation by gang-masters. Immediate, medium-term and long-term solutions are required to resolve this situation and to break the current cycle of exploitation in which thousands of workers find themselves trapped in. The Working Group was informed that a previous regularisation initiative failed to achieve its objectives. However, the Working Group considers that renewed efforts to regularise migrant workers, with provision of essential documents, stable contracts of work, stay-permits and improved living conditions, must be a high priority of the Government and its regional counterparts. 


Environmental pollution and climate change

The Working Group visited a number of places in Italy which revealed a clash between industrial-economic development priorities and respect for human rights and the environment. 

We visited Avellino to consider issues raised by the community in that locality relating to environmental pollution due to industrial development in the Valle de Sabato since the 1980s, as well as the pollution and illness caused by an asbestos plant, Isochimica, and the mismanagement of asbestos removal since the closure of the plant. The Working Group was informed about 30 of deaths that have been attributed to the effects of work with asbestos as well as some 185 others suffering persistent illness thought to be as a result of exposure to asbestos. After the closure of the asbestos plant, community members described learning of practices of dumping of asbestos in the river, burying it locations around the plant and elsewhere, and mixing waste asbestos with concrete to form cubes that were left to deteriorate in public places. Community members also raised their concerns over current and future pollution of water sources including with e-coli and heavy metals and over incidents of industrial related fires. The Working Group was informed that the community had to use its own resources to conduct environmental studies that revealed the full extent of the pollution problems.

The local administration acknowledged in a meeting with the Working Group that clean-up of asbestos had only been partial and that further measures were required.  We recommend that the office of the Mayor as well as authorities at the regional and national level should initiate a meaningful consultation with affected communities in Avellino to agree on a way forward. They should also work together to provide for comprehensive remediation, including cleaning up of the asbestos sites. Moreover, the relevant corporate actors must be held accountable for causing or contributing to environmental pollution.

The Working Group also visited Taranto, the site of the largest steel plant in Europe, which is located close to the town centre, and which was the subject of criminal prosecution for serious environmental pollution. The plant was found to be emitting harmful substances (including dioxins) resulting in efforts by the community and local authorities to address and limit the emissions, as well as a recent order of the Mayor to shut down the hot rolling mill of the plant. This order was subsequently overturned by the court. The Working Group was informed by the community of higher than average death rates, lower life expectancy in some localities, high incidence of cancers and other diseases, and lower IQ levels among children living in close proximity to the plant. The community described regular “wind days” in which they were advised to close their windows, cancel activities and avoid being outside due to wind conditions which bring harmful deposits directly into neighbourhoods. On the other hand, the Government-appointed Commissioners and the company currently running the plant, Acciaierie d’Italia, informed the Working Group that the emissions fall within acceptable levels, that various measures have been introduced in recent years to control the pollution, and regular reports are being submitted to the relevant authorities. The company is also developing a plan to spend about EUR20 million for welfare of the community and children.  

It seems that all key parties, the Government authorities, Acciaierie d’Italia and the community, are facing a dilemma between a desire to maintain thousands of jobs and protecting the rights to health and a clean environment. The Working Group considers that this situation can and should be resolved within an acceptable timeframe and with the rights and health of the community as the highest priority. The Government-appointed Commissioners and Acciaierie d’Italia should conduct meaningful consultation with local authorities and affected communities to address their legitimate concerns. They, in coordination with the Ministry of Ecological Transition, should also develop an urgent plan to achieve full decarbonisation in line with Italy’s climate targets.

The Working Group visited Val D’agri, the site of a major ENI oil production facility, where it heard the views of both community members and company representatives relating to the impact of the oil industry in the area. The community raised significant concerns relating to environmental and health issues as well as the wider economic and social impact of the industry on the region and the community. The company highlighted its efforts in the field of environmental protection and community engagement. It is clear that further efforts are required on the part of ENI to conduct meaningful human rights due diligence and build trust between the company and the community to ensure independently verifiable data is available to address any legitimate concerns.

Gender dimensions

We welcome the Government of Italy’s action in ratifying the Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 (ILO 190). Yet, urgent steps should be taken, as women and LGBTI+ people in Italy continue to experience various forms of discrimination and gender-based violence, including at workplace. For example, the Working Group learned that women workers in the agriculture, construction and logistics sectors faced sexual harassment, gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination, including online shaming. Women workers at hotels were paid wages according to the numbers of room serviced rather the number of hours worked. Migrant women workers are more vulnerable to such abuses. Cases of reported domestic violence also increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and consequently the Government provided additional resources to violence centres. We were also informed that LGBTI+ people in Italy faced discrimination at work and in public places.  

More proactive measures should be taken by the Government, the private sector, trade unions and civil society organisations to achieve substantive gender equality in line with Sustainable Development Goal 5. At the end of 2020, about 39 per cent of board members of Italian listed companies were women. This progress was directly linked to two affirmative action laws: a 2011 law which imposed the one-third quota requirement for boards of all listed companies, and a 2019 law enhanced this requirement to 40 per cent women on boards from 2020 onwards. However, the number of women CEOs in Italian companies still remains very low. A cultural shift to break patriarchal power structures and gender serotypes is required. In this context, we welcome the G20 Conference on Women’s Empowerment and hope that the upcoming G20 Leaders’ Summit will embed gender equality as a cross-cutting issue.  

Access to remedy and corporate accountability

The Working Group is concerned by the lack of robust judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to seek effective remedy for business related human rights abuses. This means that businesses frequently act with impunity and victims are deterred from bringing cases due to numerous factors such as lack of information about rights and remedies, inadequate legal aid, judicial delays, and a general lack of trust in approaching remedial institutions. While some business-related cases have reached successful prosecution, many others remain before the courts, sometimes for years without a final determination. It also appears that not many Italian companies have established operational-level grievance mechanisms in line with the UNGPs.

The Government should strengthen the offices of public prosecutors and provide them with adequate resources to ensure that corporations linked to human rights abuses amounting to crimes, such as environmental pollution, forced labour and human trafficking, are held accountable. Importantly, the Government should consider increasing the number of skilled staff to investigate and enforce the relevant legislation related to corporate crimes. The offices of the public prosecutors should also develop closer collaboration with their counterparts in other jurisdictions to ensure that Italian companies are held accountable for human rights abuses committed overseas (see A/HRC/35/33). It is also important to ensure that fines and other administrative or criminal sanctions imposed on businesses are proportionate to deter criminal activities in future.      

National human rights institution

Italy is one of only a few European Union countries without a national human rights institution (NHRI). This constitutes a major gap in its national human rights mechanisms that should be addressed as soon as possible. Despite long and ongoing efforts to establish an NHRI, progress is stalled in the Parliament. The Working Group recommends the Government and both chambers of the Parliament to work together to establish a robust and independent NHRI in line with the Paris Principles. As the Working Group recently highlighted (A/HRC/47/39/Add.3), NHRIs can play a crucial role in facilitating access to remedy in cases of business related human rights abuses in direct, indirect and foundation ways. However, to achieve this goal, it will be critical that the proposed Italian NHRI is independent and has an explicit mandate to deal with corporate human rights abuses, has enough resources and powers, including to provide civil remedies, raise awareness and build capacity, and to protect human rights defenders. The NHRI should also develop close collaboration with the NCP of Italy as well as with NHRIs of other countries. 

National Contact Point 

The NCP under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises is an important non-judicial mechanism to address business-related human rights abuses. We have heard conflicting opinions about the location of the NCP within the Ministry of Economic Development. Although the Working Group notes that certain steps have been taken subsequent to the 2016 peer review process to strengthen the institutional capacity and expertise of the NCP, more steps are needed to enhance its visibility and ability to provide remedial outcomes. It is also critical that the NCP is not only independent but also seen to be independent by all stakeholders.

In 16 years (2004-2020), the NCP has taken up 24 cases, some of which are emblematic of allegations involving human rights abuses by Italian companies abroad. While the number of complaints has gone up after 2016, it still remains very low considering the instances of abuses that the Working Group came across during the visit. Therefore, significant outreach and awareness raising steps should be taken to make greater use of this important mechanism, because most of the victims that we met in different regions did not know about the existence of this remedial option. The NCP should consider developing awareness tools about the OECD Guidelines as well as its mandate, including in languages spoken by migrant workers. It should also try to address imbalances of power while performing conciliation and explore avenues to ensure that Italian businesses implement its recommendations. At the end of the day, what the affected individuals and communities are looking for is not merely access to a remedial mechanism but effective actual remedies.

Mandatory human rights due diligence

The Working Group learned that there was little awareness or discussion among Government officials as well as companies about the need for a mandatory human rights due diligence law as part of the “smart mix” of regulation. We highlighted the proposed European Commission directive which would require all businesses to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence for their entire operations, including supply chains. The Working Group would encourage Italy to engage actively with the European and international processes to establish binding norms for businesses to create a global level playing field. The Government should also begin a discussion with all relevant stakeholders to adopt a national law on mandatory human rights due diligence with a strong corporate accountability component. Doing so would help Italy as well as its companies to stay ahead of the curve and prepare for changes in the regulatory landscape at different levels.  

Cohesive government actions

We were pleased to hear from several ministries that we met about important efforts made by the Government to ensure policy coherence in its work across key ministries and departments. The process of revising the current NAP through a whole-of-government approach and the coordinating role played by the Inter-ministerial Committee for Human Rights is praiseworthy. Moreover, the establishment of various inter-ministerial committees to deal with cross-cutting issues such as ensuring smooth ecological transition or dismantling the Caporalato system are positive developments.

However, the Working Group would like to see these cohesive policy approaches bringing a positive change in practice for people and the planet. The Government should also consider the NAP’s interface with other policy frameworks such as the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and the Sustainable Development Plan. Furthermore, human rights and environmental due diligence as well as access to remedy considerations should be integrated effectively when attracting investment to Italy, negotiating trade and investment agreements, and promoting Italian business investments abroad.  

Revised National Action Plan

The Working Group welcomes the initiative to develop a revised NAP on business and human rights. We were encouraged by the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Human Rights releasing a draft after consulting various stakeholders and inviting public comments by 4 October 2021. We also note with appreciation that the draft of the revised NAP includes indicators to assess implementation and seeks to capture emerging business and human rights issues such as artificial intelligence, digitalisation, and climate change.

We call for the revised NAP to ensure accountability of the Ministries in relation to the assigned responsibilities and the Government to allocate adequate resources to the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Human Rights to raise awareness and to promote dissemination of the new plan among all stakeholders. The Ministerial Committee should also organise, in coordination with other stakeholders, workshops to build capacity of Government officials and business executives to implement the UNGPs. Civil society organisations and trade unions should be given a key role in monitoring the progress in implementing the NAP by the relevant ministries. The revised NAP should also pay special attention to abuses experienced by marginalised communities such as migrant workers as well as strengthening access to remedy and corporate accountability in line with the recommendations made by the Working Group.

In conclusion, and also recalling its current Presidency of the G20 Group of States, the Working Group hopes that the Government of Italy will take this opportunity to give a high priority to include in the G20 Leaders Declaration the goal of promoting responsible business conduct in line with the UNGPs and other international standards.