Maria Grazia Giammarinaro: Exploitation of workers makes for a sour harvest

Farmers harvesting.  Picture: Neil Hanna
Farmers harvesting. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Scotland’s outdoor markets and grocery shops are brimming with ripe tomatoes, fresh lettuce and sweet berries, as Europe’s farmers deliver this year’s harvest.

There are untold stories beneath this picture of plenty, as factors such as high fuel costs and strict pricing and delivery terms from profit-hungry supermarket chains pressure the agriculture sector. One unfortunate result is labour exploitation, with stories surfacing of slavery-like conditions prevailing among workers trafficked to European mushroom, tomato and berry farms.

Today’s slaves bear little resemblance to their 19th century predecessors. Nonetheless, the end effect is the same, with exploited workers toiling to increase profits for producers. Today’s victim could be an eastern European man duped by an unethical employment agency into paying €800 for a work permit to enter the construction industry who becomes trapped on an isolated mushroom farm; or, it could be an African migrant, going unpaid on a southern European tomato farm and afraid to risk deportation by demanding a salary.

The International Labour Organisation estimates there are 20.9 million forced labourers globally, with 1.6 million found in central, south-east and eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc and 880,000 in the EU. The fruits of their unpaid labour are sold in supermarkets throughout Europe to unsuspecting customers.

In a parallel with the 19th century, a growing movement is taking shape. Non-governmental organisations including the UK’s Anti-Slavery International are raising awareness of this scourge. Organisations such as the OSCE are working with governments in countries that are sources and destinations for victims to put in place laws and practices that can successfully fight trafficking.

Consumers are not powerless. We can choose to buy Fairtrade goods. We can demand that our supermarkets tell us how they ensure that their suppliers do not use forced labour.

• Maria Grazia Giammarinaro is the special representative and co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings at the OSCE. She will appear at the Scottish Festival of Politics on 24 August