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BIPR | The Human Trafficking Initiative Series – Business and Human Rights in the Agri-food Industry: The Case of Migrant Workers
The Human Trafficking Initiative Series – Business and Human Rights in the Agri-food Industry: The Case of Migrant Workers

November 23, 2020 - 18:30

Nina Luzzatto Gardner - Sara Pennicino - Laura Safer Espinoza - Yvan Sagnet

Event Recap

The Bologna Institute for Policy Research (BIPR) hosted a virtual seminar on business and human rights in the agri-food industry, taking a closer look at migrant workers. After showing a trailer of “The Invisibles”, a recently released documentary on migrant workers from Africa working in the fields of Italy directed by Diana Ferrero and Carola Mamberto for the Doha Debates, Nina Gardner of Johns Hopkins SAIS-DC set the scene by commenting on how the global pandemic has made people in lockdown more aware of where their food comes from and the exploitative conditions these ‘essential workers’ in the agricultural sector are living in.

Yvan Sagnet of NoCap, Italy, and Laura Safer Espinoza of Fair Foods Standards Council shared their insights on the striking similarity between the documentary and ongoing issues today. Sagnet highlighted the disconnect between our obsession over food safety, and the lack of awareness regarding the harsh working and living conditions of those who harvest our food.

NoCap, the association and network Sagnet founded, works to fight gang master systems (aka known in Italian as caporalato) and the exploitation of migrant workers. NoCap goes beyond protests and boycotts and focuses on market-based solutions, which the group concluded was one of the most effective strategies to overcome the human rights abuses in fields. The issue of exploited migrant workers in Italy is very complex, where gang masters are not the sole challenge but a problematic part of the supply chain that preys on people within a failed economic system. Sagnet suggested that simplifying the agricultural supply chain by eliminating middle men -- putting the supermarket chains and distributers directly in touch with farm owners -- would help eliminate gang masters, decrease the exploitation of migrant workers, and provide a living wage, while not increasing prices for consumers. He also advocated the adoption of a labeling system which could provide consumers with greater transparency and traceability regarding wage and working conditions on farms.

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza provided an overview of the accomplishments of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, based in Florida in eliminating some of the worst challenges in the agricultural sector there regarding labor conditions, including forced labor, violence and sexual harassment against women in the fields and systemic wage theft. Through years of campaigning, the Coalition has achieved legally binding agreements with 14 major food retailers, which commit them to pay a premium that is passed through as a bonus to workers, and to purchase from growers certified by the Fair Food Standards Council (the program’s monitoring organization), to be implementing the program’s Code of Conduct. Fair Food Program carries out education for workers on their rights under the Code, conducts audits, maintains a 24/7 complaint hot-line with rapid response mechanisms, and enforces safe policies backed by prompt market consequences. She described how the Fair Food Program has extended to seven other states in the US and is now in talks with growers in California – the largest agricultural state in the US. She added that COVID-19 truly exposed societal fault lines in the US, and deepened hardships due to inequality. While, in general, there have been minimal provisions made for migrant workers during the pandemic -- such as access to safety equipment, COVID testing, and the ability to socially distance -- thankfully the Fair Food Program was able to establish the first mandatory, privately enforceable set of standards for COVID-19 prevention and response in U.S. agriculture.

Nina Gardner concluded by urging the listeners on the webinar to become conscious consumers – and to put as much energy into researching whether the products and produce they buy are ethically sourced than they do when buying “bio” or organic.

Full Audio:

The Human Trafficking Initiative Series – Business and Human Rights in the Agri-food Industry: The Case of Migrant Workers
Human Trafficking Series

hosted by Professor Sara Pennicino

Nina Luzzatto Gardner
Chair: Johns Hopkins University SAIS, US
Sara Pennicino
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe; University of Padua, Italy
Laura Safer Espinoza
Fair Food Standards Council, US
Yvan Sagnet
NoCap, Italy

Jointly organized with the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development (CCSDD). Supported by the Associazione di cultura e di studio italo-americana Luciano Finelli Friends of the Johns Hopkins University.

This panel is part of "The Agri-food Industry in the Wake of Covid 19: Countering the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Italy and the US", a series consisting of two events regarding human trafficking.

In Italy, the so-called ‘caporalato' phenomenon refers to a form of illegal intermediation and exploitation of migrant workers in the agricultural sector, constituting up to one fourth of the total agricultural workforce. In the US, it is an open secret that those harvesting America's food are mainly immigrants and decades-long residents of the country.

The seminar series addresses this form of exploitation of migrant workers in the wake of Covid-19 by comparing policies adopted in Italy and the US. The pandemic brought the high demand for short-term, flexible labor in the agri-food industry to the attention of the general public, as supply chains risked shortages due to lockdown measures imposed by governments. The pandemic thereby exacerbated a pre-existing and long-standing problem of the agricultural and food industry, one which is at the crossroads between organized crime, corruption and trafficking of human beings.

The seminars will tackle this complex phenomenon by bringing together experts and activists, with the goal of offering SAIS students the opportunity to learn about forms of modern slavery and the strategies required to counter human exploitation at a national and international level.

The panel will discuss the role played in Italy and the US by companies in the agri-food sector, and strategies to promote compliance with international labor standards in today's global economy. A trailer from the recently released documentary "The Invisibles," a production of Doha Debates, will be shown to introduce the debate.

Business and Human Rights in the Agri-food industry-I.pdf
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