Supply chain transparency the key to tackling modern slavery

Revelations of labour abuses at Italian tomato farms supplying UK supermarkets have highlighted the vulnerability of supply chains to modern slavery and unethical labour practices.

Earlier this month, The Guardian newspaper reported incidents of labour abuse in the supply chains of two Italian food giants – Mutti and Conserve Italia – which supply major British supermarkets with tinned tomatoes and passata, including J Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

In papers presented by Italian prosecutor Paola Guglielmi has accused both companies of benefiting from “conditions of absolute exploitation” in the country’s hugely lucrative tomato industry, as part of her investigations into the death of a seasonal labourer, Abdullah Muhammed in July 2015.

Abdullah was a 47-year-old Sudanese legal immigrant and father of two, who suffered a heart attack while working in the fields of Nardó, southern Italy, where most of the country’s tomato industry is based.

Court documents presented by Guglielmi document that migrants, hired through gangmaster or “caporalato” system to tend and harvest crops – had been forced to work for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, on minimal wage, with no access to medical care picking fruit that would be used in the goods of companies supplying to supermarkets in the UK and elsewhere in the the world.  Despite legal efforts to crack down on such abuses, there are still many rural Italian farming communities where it continues.

Ms Cuglielmi accuses Italian company owner Giuseppe Mariano and Sudanese gangmaster Mohammed Elsalih of manslaughter. The preliminary investigation has now concluded, and a judge will decide whether the case should go to trial.

Nevertheless, the case highlights the vulnerability of supply chains, particularly international supply chains, to indirect labour exploitation and forced labour which contribute to the manufacture of every day products readily available in UK shops and supermarkets.

Quoted in Supply Management magazine, Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said the case highlighted the vulnerability of supply chain workers, which authorities needed to address.

“This is a tragic case and we expect the Italian authorities to carry out a full investigation,” he said.

Where laws have been broken, we expect the perpetrators to brought to justice.”

Andrews added that the welfare of workers in supply chains was of upmost importance and that BRC members would investigate any allegations of malpractice.  He said that retailers in the UK had put in place mechanisms to protect their supply chains, including codes of conduct and training but that it needed to be supported by “effective government enforcement of labour standards”.