A small fuzzy fruit unveils modern slavery in Europe in 2023

Poor migrants from Punjab toil in Italy's orchards so that cheap kiwifruit can be sold in supermarkets like Lidl, Føtex, Netto, Spar and Rema 1000. Danwatch has visited the worker's home villages in Punjab and the Italian kiwi fields where they toil away - to tell the story of modern-day debt slavery, underpayment and exploitation in modern day Europe.
Poor migrants from Punjab toil in Italy's orchards so that cheap kiwifruit can be sold in supermarkets like Lidl, Føtex, Netto, Spar and Rema 1000. Danwatch has visited the worker's home villages in Punjab and the Italian kiwi fields where they toil away - to tell the story of modern-day debt slavery, underpayment and exploitation in modern day Europe.
Partner
Published in collaboration with The Wire and IrpiMedia with support from Journalismfund.eu
Chief editor: Adam Dyrvig Tatt

“The supervisor shouts at me all the time, calls me horrible names and complains about me to the boss. She says that I am not fast enough”.

The large man sitting opposite us shrinks as he tells about daily life on one of Italy’s largest kiwi orchards. Tears roll down his sunburned cheeks.

“She films me on her phone and sends the footage to the boss if I just get my water bottle or stop for a moment to get some dirt out of my eye. Then I won’t get paid that day’.

The broken man on the rickety café chair on the edge of the central square of the Cisterna di Latina, just south of Rome, is Gurjinder Singh.

How we did it

Get an insight into the methods used in this study and the data obtained here.

After fourteen years as a farm worker in Italy’s scorched kiwi fields, he is a changed man.

The last three years in particular have cost him both his health and his equilibrium.

Shortly before Danwatch met Gurjinder Singh, he had managed to escape from a large kiwi orchard in Lazio. Where he was subjected to constant harassment and surveillance.

Although he has moved on, 50-year-old Gurjinder Singh, is reluctant to give his real name.

He also dares not let us publish the name of the orchard in fear of what the orchard owner could do to him. For example, get him fired from his new workplace.

“My family and children are in India, and they need all the money I can send them”, he says.

In colaboration with the Italian center for investigative journalism, IrpiMedia, and independent Indian newspaper The Wire, Danwatch has been in Lazio, south of Rome, to investigate the conditions in the Italian kiwifruit industry.

Midway between the ruins of Rome and the white beaches of the Mediterranean, lies one of Italy’s most fertile agricultural areas, where, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), kiwifruit production has steadily increased over the past twenty years, supplying a great portion of the globe with the juicy fruit.

Italiens kiwi-produktion

Så mange tons kiwi er produceret i Italien fra 2001 til 2021.

But Italy's sweet kiwi success is built on a bitter reality.

Several kiwi workers from orchards across Lazio clearly illustrate how Indian migrant workers from Punjab are subjected to debt slavery, underpayment and exploitation to secure fresh supplies of the small fuzzy fruit for the rest of the world, including Danish supermarkets.

And this picture is confirmed by local trade unions, police authorities and experts interviewed by Danwatch, IrpiMedia and The Wire.

If a migrant worker is trapped in a situation where they cannot afford to quit, due to debt, or because they are controlled by their employer, it is definitely modern slavery.
Natalia Ollus
Senior Researcher and Director of the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, Helsinki

Researchers, NGOs and trade unions estimate that at least 30,000 Indian migrants work in Lazio's orchards, toiling 10-11 hours a day, six days a week, for an hourly wage of around 5-6 euros. This is just over half of the minimum wage.

Most migrant workers in Lazio come from Punjab in northern India.

But to get that far, they typically have to pay between 100,000 and 135,000 euros to get to Italy - a debt that typically takes them between three to four years to repay.

This makes it very difficult to leave the kiwi orchard, no matter how inhumane the conditions are.

Trade unions, NGOs and independent experts on human trafficking say that conditions in the Italian kiwifruit industry can be described as modern slavery in several respects.

"The wage conditions and that workers must put themselves in debt to travel to Italy are both elements of modern slavery," said Sine Plambech, an expert on human trafficking and senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).

"If a migrant worker is trapped in a situation where they cannot afford to quit, due to debt, or because they are controlled by their employer, it is definitely modern slavery," says Natalia Ollus, senior researcher specializing in human trafficking and director for the European Institute of Crime Prevention and Control in Helsinki.

Gurjinder Singh, who spent 15 years working on Italian kiwifruit farms, discloses the exploitation and psychological violence on one of Lazio's large kiwifruit orchards. Photo: Stefania Prandi

Det centrale torv, Cisterna di Latina, Lazio, Italien

A broken man

Gurjinder Singh comes straight from the field to speak with us and apologizes for not being able to clean off the dirt that is ingrained into his hands.

"I scrub them with shampoo and lemon, but I just can't get it off," he says, hiding his hands that look just as wounded as his soul.

Just two days earlier, Gurjinder Singh started a new job in the provincial capital Cisterna di Latina with a different orchard owner, who he hopes will treat him better and keep his promise of an employment contract, an hourly wage of 5-6 euros and an eight-hour working day.

Several of the 50-60 other farm workers there have told him that it is a bearable place. But he is not sure whether or not this is true.

False payslips

As Gurjinder Singh talks about life as a kiwi worker, two of his new colleagues sit next to him and nod. Because his story is their story too.

Ten different kiwi workers revealed to us, with little variation in their stories, how orchard owners systematically manipulate their pay slips and do not pay the agreed minimum wage, which is around nine euros an hour.

The trick is really quite simple, they explain.

Every month, employers record far fewer days and hours on their pay slips than the employees actually work. Instead, part of their hourly wage is paid to them on the side, at a much lower rate and often in cash.

Their average hourly wage then ends up being 5-6 euros per hour - a third less than the wage the orchard owners should have paid them.

And in that way, employers don't have to pay full wages for labour and they don't have to pay a lot of taxes. Giovanni Gioia, president of the La Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) trade union in Lazio, explains.

That he estimates that the scam costs the Italian state billions in lost tax revenue every year, but there are no firm figures.

His office in Latina is plastered with posters baring red slogans and raised fists. He says that payroll fraud is widespread throughout the Italian agricultural sector and that it has been very difficult for the authorities and trade unions to tackle.

In 2016, 5,000 Indian migrant workers took to the streets to draw attention to their exploitation and low pay. Photo: CGIL

"Up to 90% of the payslips we see are fake. For example, orchard owners will claim three days of work per week at 6.5 hours per day, but in reality it is very different. The vast majority of farm workers work six or seven days a week from sun-up to sun-down", says Giovanni Goia.

The many workers we spoke to unanimously confirmed that working hours are typically 11-12 hours a day, six days a week.

Haning in his office in the provincial capital Latina, Giovanni Gioia's pride and joy is a large photograph from 2016 when GCIL motivated thousands of Indian farm workers to take to the streets to protest their conditions.

Since then, on average wages have risen from 3 euros to 5.5 euros. But otherwise, the conditions are pretty much the same, he says.

In the Shaheed Baba Silal Singh temple outside Jalandhar, family members give up to 1,000 model airplanes as offerings every day, praying for their sons, husbands or fathers to be granted visas to work in Europe. Photo: Stefania Prandi

Templet Shaheed Baba Bihal Singh, Talhan, Indien

The dream of Europe

Like Gurjinder Singh, the rest of the Indian farm workers who tend to, water, pick, and pack the juicy kiwis in Lazio come from the Indian state of Punjab.

We went to northern India to visit some of the villages where families send between 400 and 500 sons, husbands and fathers every day to work in the US, Canada and Europe.

Although Punjab is known as India's breadbasket, the economic prosperity of recent decades has not reached the remote villages, and money sent home by migrant workers plays a major role, especially for poor farmers.

It's Sunday in the grand Shaheed Baba Bihal Singh temple in Talhan village outside Jalandhar, Punjab's third largest city.

From all over, turbaned men, women in colorful saris, and families with children flock to the temple to participate in the daily prayer.

Inside, between the temple pillars, several of the children play with the brightly coloured model airplanes they bought at the market outside the temple. 1.70 euros for the smallest, 5.30 for the most expensive.

Most of the airplanes are still wrapped in crackling cellophane, because they're not meant to be played with. The planes are to be given as offerings at the temple to ensure that an older brother, father or uncle can get one of the coveted visas to the West. For the skilled, it's the US and Canada, for the unskilled it's Portugal and Italy.

One by one, the colourful airplanes are piled in front of the flower-covered dais where the temple's priest Baljit Singh is about to preach.

"Every day, visitors give up to 1,000 airplanes as offerings, on Sundays there can be up to 3,000-4,000," he says.

The planes symbolize the dream of travel, the dream of a better life in the USA or Europe. A dream which is shared by almost every child and adult we spoke to in the village.

And it's a dream that many are making a reality: the Indian media estimate that Italy alone is home to more than 220,000 workers from Punjab.

"People see that offering up an airplane works for others. And then they think, why not try it themselves," says the priest.

"Does it work? Yes, of course it works," he says with a smile. "If you offer an airplane with sincere faith in God and in yourself, it will work".

In Punjab's villages, large villas testify to the prosperity of some of the families who have sent their sons and daughters to the West. One villa is known as Italy waleya di Kothi, "The House of those who live in Italy", another as England Wale "The Englanders".

But Baljit Singh knows that not all dreams become a reality in Europe.

"I am aware of that. But it has become our culture to travel", he says, while emphasizing that it is a tradition that it saddens him.

"I don't think that those who are doing well here should leave. But there are many young people who have no future here. Even if you are well educated, it is very difficult to find a job. That's why people leave. They hope for a brighter future and better quality of life," he says.

In Jalandhar's maze of narrow streets, hundreds of travel agencies offer their help to obtain visas and work in Italy and elsewhere. Photo: Stefania Prandi

17,000 euros for a visa

Jalandhar, Punjab, Indien

But it's one thing to offer model airplanes at the temple, it's quite another to leave.

And most people will need a little more practical help than what the priest can offer.

In the provincial capital of Jalandhar, home to around one and a half million people, travel agents in their hundreds advertise trips to Europe with a promise of a job and a bright future.

We got in contact with five travel agencies to see what they charge for sending a young man to Italy.

We tell the travel agents that we would like to buy a flight for the journalist's brother, Manjit Singh, and ask them how much it would cost to fly him and how it would work if, for example, he wanted to work at an Italian kiwifruit farm.

All five agents are very eager to arrange flights for the journalist's brother, but the prices and practical details of the trip vary dramatically. At one agency, the agent wants at least 13,5 lakh rupees to get a visa to the Schengen area, which includes Italy.

This is equivalent to approximately 17,000 euros.

"If your brother gets a Schengen visa, he can travel freely within that region, including Italy", the agent promises.

Another travel agent wants 8.5 lakh rupees to send Manjit Singh to Malta. This is equivalent to approximately 10,000 euros. How Manjit gets from Malta to Italy would be up to him, the agent explains.

However, none of the travel agencies can promise that Manjit will secure a job if he makes it to Italy.

"He'll have to get one himself when he gets there", they all respond.

Despite the exorbitant price of a visa and airfare to Italy, the Indian government estimates that around 487,000 young people left Punjab to work abroad between 2016 and February 2021.

It is usually a family initiative, often with the eldest son designated to go and secure a prosperous future for the whole family, according to the several families we meet in Punjab. And several of the Indian kiwifruit workers we interviewed in Lazio confirm this too.

Sometimes the worker's extended family manages to raise the money, but otherwise young people borrow money from the richest families in the village or from loan sharks. Often by mortgaging the family's property, they explain.

Gurjinder Singh is stuck in Italy because his family relies on the money he sends home Photo: Stefania Prandi

Cisterna di Latina, Italien

Trapped by debt

For Gurjinder Singh, it cost more than 100,000 euros to reach Italy. A debt that took him almost four years to repay.

In the square in Latina, he says he had no choice. It was his family who decided that he went, even though he already had a wife and four children at the time.

Today, almost 16 years later, he still has no choice, he says. Due to COVID-19, he has not been able to see his family for the past three years, and for the thirteen years before that, he had no money to travel home. It has not been possible to verify whether this is true. But now in the spring of 2023, things are looking up for him and he expects to be able to travel to Punjab for a holiday.

However, once his holiday is over, the Italian kiwi orchards will call to him once more, he says.

"I have to return to Italy. I come from a very poor family. My three oldest children are married now, but I still have my wife and an 18-year-old son who lives at home and is dependent on my income", he says.

Modern slavery is no longer about being chained and forced against one's will, in the manner of the transatlantic slave trade. Today, it concerns vulnerable people who have, for example, gotten into debt and cannot leave their jobs, even if they are being exploited.
Sine Plambech
Senior Researcher, DIIS

Today Gurjinder Singh is debt-free, but all the Indian workers we spoke to in Lazio and Punjab said they had to pay between 14,000 and 18,000 euros to get to Italy.

And no matter where the money comes from, the obligation to pay back their debt is the same, they say.

  • According to the International Labor organization (ILO), modern slavery or forced labour is understood as work performed involuntarily and under threat of any punishment.
  • It refers to situations where people are forced to work through:
    • the use of violence or intimidation, or by
    • more subtle means such as manipulated debt,
    • withholding identity documents; or
    • threats of sending their termination to the immigration authorities
Source: UN and International Labor Organization ILO

Otherwise, the worker's family back home in Punjab risks paying back extortionate interest to a moneylender, or if things go terribly wrong, they risk losing their home and land. And on top of that, it is also a matter of honour to pay back debt.

Like Gurjinder Singh, all the Indian kiwifruit workers we met spent between three and four years paying off the loans they took to get to Italy.

This has prompted trade unionists like Giovanni Goia and human trafficking experts to talk about debt slavery.

"Modern slavery is no longer about being chained and forced against one's will, in the manner of the transatlantic slave trade. Today, it concerns vulnerable people who have, for example, gotten into debt and cannot leave their job, even if they are being exploited", says Sine Plambech, Senior Researcher at DIIS.

No posts

Six years a slave

Someone who experienced an extreme form of modern slavery is Balbir Nikah Singh, now 49, whom we meet while in the provincial capital of Cisterna di Latina.

Today he lives in a single room annex with a kitchen and bathroom in Latina. But he has never had it so good. For more than six years, he admits he was a "slave" on a farm near the small coastal town of Borgo Sabotino.

When his long days as a farm worker were over, Balbir Singh lived in an old caravan with no light, heat, water or gas.

"If I wanted to bathe, I had to use the hose we had in the barn - the same one I used for the cows. And if I was hungry, I had to rummage through the family's garbage bin or eat the leftover food they fed to the farmyard chickens and pigs," says Balbir Nikah Singh.

His story is varified by several other sources who have had similar experiences, as well as a number of court documents and photos which Danwatch have viewed.

But worst of all, the salary that would have secured his own stay in Italy and enabled him to bring his wife Surinder Kaur and their two daughters to Europe became less and less.

"I dreamed of a bright future for me and my family. My wife was supposed to come to Italy too, but that dream was crushed by my employer", says Balbir Singh

"I worked 12-13 hours every single day, seven days a week. I never had a day off and the salary I received was getting smaller and smaller. Some months I only got 50 or 100 euros. In the end, there were months when I didn't get paid at all".

To this day, the former primary school teacher from Punjab is ashamed that he put up with those conditions. But the farm owner had taken his passport. And without a valid residence permit, he could not travel anywhere.

"Where would I go without a passport and papers. And what's more, the son in the house threatened to kill me if I tried to run away".

Fortunately, Balbir Nikah Singh eventually managed to escape.

Before dawn on the morning of March 17, 2017, the Italian police, the carabinieri, stormed the farm in Borgo Sabotino arresting the entire family and freeing Balbir Singh.

Balbir Nikah Singh was a primary school teacher before becoming a kiwifruit worker in Italy. Today, he lives in a small apartment in Lazio, more than 5,000 kilometers from his wife and their two daughters Photo: Stefania Prandi

No posts

An extreme case - a widespread problem

Today, Balbir Singh is still a farm worker, but now on a kiwi orchard, where despite everything conditions are better. The working days are still many and long, and hourly wages do not exceed 5.50 euros.

But he is the first migrant worker in Italy's history to be granted a permanent residence permit because of what he has endured.

And he is one of the first Indian migrant workers ever to take his former employer to court, both to seek justice for the humiliation he suffered and to raise awareness of the plight of migrants.

"I really hope that even my worst enemy will never have to go through what I have been through", he says.

In addition, he also hopes that his former employer will be forced to pay him back for all months that they did not pay his wages.

"Today, I am a free bird and I am not giving up", he declares. "Your mother gives you the gift of life, but what you achieve with your life depends solely on your personality and your own actions".

Parco Europa, Aprilia, Italien

Systematic exploitation

Although Balbir Nikah Singh's fate led him down an extreme path, his experience shows how vulnerable Indian migrants are when they end up on an Italian orchard, often without knowing the language or their rights.

Marco Omizzollo, Professor of Social Anthropology and Migration at La Sapienza University in Rome, specializes in the conditions of Indian migrants in Lazio.

As well as researching this field, he has worked undercover in the area.

The exploitation of Indian migrant workers is severe and widespread. Agricultural workers are the main victims of exploitation, but many of them are also victims of modern human trafficking.
Marco Omizzollo
Professor, La Sapienza University, Rome

For three months, he lived and worked with the Indian migrant workers in the village of Bella Farnia, south of Latina, and has since published several books about his experiences and the system of travel agents, orchard owners and others who make money from exploiting the poor workers from Punjab.

This has made him quite unpopular and, after a series of threats from who he refers to as the 'Italian agricultural mafia', he now lives and works at a secret address.

Therefore, our meeting with him takes place in Parco Europa in Aprila, one of the smaller towns in the area.

"The exploitation of Indian migrant workers is severe and widespread. It is mainly agricultural workers who are exploited, but many of them are also victims of modern human trafficking", says the Italian researcher.

"They are lured to Lazio by people who make large sums of money to bring them to the area, and most of the time the workers only get a fraction of what they have been promised", he says.

In addition, many of the Indian workers in Lazio are subjected to both physical and psychological violence, his research shows.

However, it is not only in the kiwifruit industry or in Lazio province that the exploitation of guest workers takes place.

According to Urmila Bhoola, the UN Special Rapporteur on modern slavery, up to 400,000 agricultural workers in Italy are at risk of exploitation.

This is according to a comprehensive report she prepared for the UN Human Rights Council on the issue. She also concludes that almost 100,000 live in what she describes as "inhumane conditions".

Breakdown of the Mafia's power

Marco Omizzolo has been involved in migrant workers' rights for more than a decade and was knighted in 2019 for his "courageous work" in exposing working conditions in Lazio.

He believes that conditions have improved slightly in recent years, particularly in terms of pay. But at the same time, the exploitation of workers has become more sophisticated.

"For example, some orchard owners pay yo-yo wages, a term describing an employer who pays wages in full but requires their workers to withdraw 200-300 euros the next day and return it to them in cash".

As CGIL union leader Giovanni Goia confirms, orchard owners have been adept at adapting to increasing controls and making areas of their exploitation invisible.

However, he agrees with Omizzolo that conditions have slightly improved in recent years.

The search for those responsible

After interviewing the ten Indian kiwi workers about the conditions they work under, the

IrpiMedia, The Wire and Danwatch were eager to talk to some of the orchard owners who have been accused of underpaying workers, manipulating their pay slips, verbally abusing them, shaming them and in some cases filming and firing the Indian employees.

However, despite several attempts, it was not possible to get in touch with the owners or to even get a tour of the orchards.

"Call a different number". "Call again" "Come again another day". "The owner's not home".

"There's no one else who can talk to you" is their answer, when we call and, in many cases also when we go to the address to speak with them.

However, according to the UN Principles on Human Rights and Business, responsibility does not end there. According to the guidelines, all companies in the supply chain are jointly responsible for any negative impacts on human rights and the environment.

The next step in the supply chain are a series of Italian wholesalers who buy kiwifruit from the many orchards in Lazio and export them to the rest of the world.

The workers we spoke to are employed on kiwi orchards who, among others, supply Apofruit, Kiwi Pontino, Salvi, Zani Granfrutta and Zeolifruit. All of whom supply kiwifruit to Danish supermarkets.

However, none of these five companies wanted to be interviewed.

THE FACTS

The kiwifruit's route to Denmark

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), every link in the supply chain is responsible for what goes on in Italian orchards. Below the diagram, you can read the full reactions of the individual wholesalers and Danish supermarket chains selling kiwifruit from Lazio.

We are in close contact with our kiwifruit suppliers and we have assessed Italy as a medium-risk country in terms of human rights and labour rights violations.

We also know where the kiwifruit is produced, including their subcontractors, but as Danwatch has not disclosed which production sites are involved, it is difficult to assess whether we are getting goods from those sites you have investigated.

We have not found any infringements, and our supplier certainly does not believe that there have been any infringements in his supply chain.

As our kiwifruit suppliers are GRASP certified (together with SA8000 and our signed Codes of Conduct), we also have confidence that working conditions are in order.

We would appreciate to know the production sites where you have found modern slavery, forced labour and human rights violations, so that we know if we are affected and can take immediate action.

We take note of Danwatch's observations from the area and we will continue to work with the limited information they have made available to us. In addition, we have organized a joint meeting facilitated by the Danish Ethical Trade Initiative Denmark for further discussion on the topic.

We are aware that throughout Europe, and particularly in southern European countries, migrant workers are used in the agricultural sector. This is one of the reasons why we at Salling Group require additional documentation from our fruit and vegetable growers as part of our due diligence.

We take your findings very seriously and have looked deeper into our supply chain. However, our third-party verifications/certifications do not allow us to immediately acknowledge these issues.

As Danwatch is not in a position to share more specific information, it is currently only possible for us to comment on general risks.

We are in continuous dialogue with our suppliers, and all our producers are also subject to social audit documentation requirements, and as mentioned above, no deviations of this nature have been observed.

Although we ourselves do not have any indications of these types of unacceptable circumstances, we will investigate the matter further in light of your request.

All Lidl producers of fresh produce must complete the GLOBALG.A.P. GRASP social declaration. Lidl's mandatory requirement is that the evaluation must be completed successfully, i.e. passed as "fully compliant".

As a general rule, Lidl has a zero-tolerance policy towards any kind of human rights violations in our supply chains.

In our business activities, we take responsibility and respect the fundamental rights of all people at different stages throughout our supply chains.

We comply with Lidl's due diligence process and are committed to improving working conditions and strengthening human rights within the framework of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)

We have demonstrated our commitment to respecting human rights by joining the United Nations Global Compact (UNCG).

For more information, see our purchasing policy regarding Human rights in the supply chain. Our commitment to implementing social and environmental standards in the supply chain is anchored in our Code of Conduct, which is one of our legally binding agreements and applies to our entire supply chain.

Good working conditions across our supply chain are an absolute priority, and we only work with suppliers that comply with Lidl's strict Code of Conduct. We have also published a comprehensive company due diligence statement on our website. As part of our corporate responsibility, we continuously and systematically investigate potential risks such as human rights abuses in supply chains.

If we receive specific facts about breaches of our rules, we will investigate the matter and take appropriate action.

To detect infringements, Lidl has set up an online reporting system to report information. All information received in this way is processed by our Compliance Officer.

The internet-based application can be accessed from any internet-enabled device. We encourage Danwatch to share any specific suspicions or facts from your investigation via our reporting system. Information can also be provided anonymously. This is important in order for us to pursue the specific allegations.

….

  • Danwatch has requested further information about the hotline and whether Lidl has received complaints about conditions in Italy:

To enable compliance breaches to be reported and to address possible violations, Lidl works with its own online reporting system BKMS.

All notifications received are processed. Our online reporting system BKMS can be found and used via the Lidl Compliance website linked below and is available internationally and in several languages. There is also a direct link to our supplier rules at the bottom of Lidl's national websites...

The internal treatment of compliance breaches is carried out in accordance with our published rules of procedure. You can find further information on Compliance at Lidl, including the Rules of Procedure and our online reporting system BKMS, on the following website: https://info.lidl/en/compliance

We have been using BKMS for several years. Based on the several years we have used this reporting system, we can summarize that the system is accepted and used. We receive regular reports via BKMS.

To date, we have not received any complaints about kiwi suppliers or orchards in Italy.

In order to identify breaches of compliance and to be able to take action, it is important that these breaches are reported. We encourage those who have the knowledge of or are affected by, any human rights violations or problematic working conditions, as well as environmental risks and violations, or criminal and administrative offenses in our supply chains to report these using our reporting system BKMS. We would like to stress again that anonymous tips can also be submitted through the system.

We are very concerned about the allegations you have outlined.

Zespri takes claims like this extremely seriously. As we noted in our recent correspondence, we have more than 1,000 growers in Italy, so it would be very helpful if you could provide the evidence and information you refer to so that we can investigate this properly, gather information and take appropriate action. This will also help us give you an on-the-record response to your story.

As you have noticed, we are committed to working to ensure that our industry is one that people want to work in because they are valued, secure and supported in their jobs. We remain committed to doing all we can do to combat the exploitation of workers and to create an industry where people can thrive.

Zespri is committed to looking after people and has a set of core values that must be adhered to in order to protect people working in the kiwifruit industry.

All our producers are obliged to meet the requirements of our definition of agricultural practices. It is the basis for all our orchard activities.

All producers must have a GLOBALG.A.P GRASP (GLOBALG.A.P Risk Assessment of Social Practices) certificate before they can supply to Zespri. It is an internationally recognized independent certification system in the fruit and vegetable industry that outlines expectations for the safety, health and welfare of workers.

Zespri works with more than 1,000 growers in Italy, all of whom must have a GLOBALG.A.P GRASP certificate.

Once the harvest is over, the companies that supply kiwifruit to Zespri are registered with Sedex - one of the world's leading ethical trade membership organizations focused on improving working conditions in global supply chains.

Through Sedex, Italian suppliers of SunGold Kiwis are audited by an external third-party certification body and annually confirm their acceptance of the Zespri Code of Conduct.

The vast majority of employers in the kiwifruit industry take proper care of their people, but there may be a small minority who do not.

Any exploitation of workers is unacceptable and we are committed to holding those involved accountable and continuing to improve our control mechanisms to ensure compliance.

We take the allegations made by DanWatch extremely seriously and have launched an investigation into this, including how we can best support affected workers.

Any manufacturer suspected of not meeting the GlobalGAP GRASP requirements will be investigated by an independent certification body, who have the power to revoke certification,which means that they will not be able to supply Zespri.

People who choose to work in our industry are a critical part of our success. We will continue to review our control mechanisms and work with authorities to combat worker exploitation and create an industry where people are valued, supported and secure in their jobs.

  • Why do you only supervise suppliers of yellow kiwifruit?

All growers supplying Zespri with either Green or SunGold Kiwifruit must be independently certified to GLOBALG.AP and GRASP. GLOBALG.AP is an internationally recognized independent certification standard for good agricultural practices in the fruit and vegetable industry which defines the expectations for worker health, safety and welfare. Before certification, each grower is assessed annually by the independent certification body, including an on-site visit. This means that over 1,200 producer assessments are carried out annually.

SunGold Kiwifruit suppliers have long-term contracts with Zespri and are also committed to being independently audited for Sedex - one of the world's leading ethical trade membership organizations focused on improving working conditions in global supply chains.

In addition to growers being independently certified to GLOBALG.AP and GRASP, green kiwifruit suppliers must provide a declaration that they are Sedex compliant and sign the Zespris Code of Conduct, which includes a commitment to conduct business legally, responsibly, ethically, with integrity, honestly and transparently. Suppliers who do not meet these requirements cannot supply Zespri.

Workers employed on orchards are employed directly by the producers and each worker is paid independently for the work they do.

The wholesalers do not provide labour to the orchards, they only hire staff for packing activity. Therefore, independent systems are in place - GLOBALG.AP and GRASP for growers and Sedex for packers.

  • What do you do to ensure that other suppliers comply with GRASP standards and the Zespri Code of Conduct?

All producers supplying Zespri with either Green or SunGold Kiwifruit must be independently certified to GLOBALG.AP and GRASP. Compliance with GRASP is independently certified by professional certification bodies in Italy.

We regularly speak to suppliers about the importance of worker welfare and since being made aware of the allegations of malpractice, we have contacted all our Italian suppliers expressing our concerns about the alleged practices and reiterating the requirements around worker welfare as a condition of supplying Zespri.

Zespri has also contacted the independent certification bodies and informed them of the allegations. The lack of detail in the allegations, which we have requested from Danwatch several times, has made it more difficult for them to follow up.

To check compliance with our Code of Conduct, Zespri screens all suppliers through a monitoring tool that highlights red flags such as law breaches, regulatory breaches, negative media coverage or sanctions imposed on suppliers. Any red flags or risks raised are reviewed internally and, where appropriate, followed up with the relevant supplier to ensure that the necessary corrective actions have been taken.

  • Who are the independent bodies that supervise kiwifruit producers on your behalf?

The certification bodies in the Latina area are NSF, Agricert, CSI and Certiquality. Zespri has contacted them to draw their attention to the alleged malpractices.

You have launched an investigation into conditions in the Lazio kiwifruit industry. What exactly have you done and when do you expect a result?

Zespri is committed to looking after people and has a set of core values that must be met to help protect people working within our global supply chain.

We also have experience in taking action to address non-compliance issues. Our main focus is on ensuring that affected workers are safe and can be well supported. While we have regular discussions with our suppliers about our expectations for compliance with our values, since being made aware of the allegations, we have formally contacted all of our suppliers to express our concerns about the reports of poor practices and reinforced our expectations that workers within our supply chain are well looked after.

We have also made it clear that meeting the requirements of GLOBALG.AP GRASP is a requirement for delivering Zespri, and when suppliers fail to do so, we will take action. Zespri has conducted an internal audit to ensure that all key control mechanisms are working effectively, and has contacted the independent certification bodies to encourage them to consider the issues raised by DanWatch.

However, the lack of detail in the allegations, which we have requested from DanWatch on several occasions, has made any further investigation difficult. Improving working conditions will remain a constant focus for us, and this is reflected in a task force that has been established to review global industry compliance programs and consider initiatives and/or improvements to be rolled out in the first half of 2023.

This is part of our ongoing efforts to improve our systems.

- You say you want to support the affected workers. In what way?

Zespri wants to ensure that all employees working within our supply chain are safe and well supported. We want to be able to help affected workers get the support they need, including helping to find legitimate employment opportunities within the industry.

  • What are you doing to identify affected workers?

Zespri works with more than 1,200 growers in Italy and the lack of detail provided to date, despite several requests from Zespri, has made it difficult to investigate this case. Zespri has formally contacted suppliers regarding the concerns raised to seek more information and our local teams are also on the ground in Italy to seek further details and have informed the independent certification bodies.

We encourage anyone with information about labour practices in the Italian kiwifruit industry to contact us via our confidential hotline EthicsPoint - Zespri International, available in Italian as well as other languages.

  • What are you doing to enable affected workers to contact you without risking their jobs and wellbeing?

While there are already systems in place for workers with concerns to contact the independent certification bodies or the secretariat of GLOBALG.AP, Zespri also has a confidential hotline -EthicsPoint - Zespri International. We encourage anyone with information about the practice to contact us via this confidential hotline so that we can consider how best to support the wellbeing of the workers concerned.

  • How do you intend to change your due diligence (risk assessment) in Italy?

Over the last six months, Zespri has started work as part of our commitment to further strengthen industry compliance. This includes a review of the due diligence processes currently in place as well as the establishment of a task force to review global industry compliance programs and identify initiatives and/or improvements to be rolled out in the first half of this year. We have also passed on the concerns raised directly to the independent certification bodies.

  • Why are you not listed as a Sedex member when they seem to be the ones certifying your suppliers in Italy?

Zespri does not own or manage any facilities in Italy. As a marketing organization, we are not eligible to be registered with Sedex as this is only available for production units. Our SunGold Kiwi suppliers are nevertheless required to be independently audited, with green suppliers having to provide a declaration that they are Sedex.

Any allegations of malpractices occurring in the kiwifruit industry are worrying and we take these allegations extremely seriously. Zespri has contacted independent certification bodies to outline our concerns about the alleged malpractices in the Italian kiwifruit industry, and we will continue to seek further information to support our investigation. We also refer to the processes outlined above.

With regard to the serious allegations you make, these accusations cannot be in relation to the conditions at Kiwi Pontino.

Our staff are treated in full compliance with the rules, but above all we respect them. After all, it is our employees who are responsible for the daily production and they are an important part of our business.

Official authorities regularly check our company, carry out inspections, with which we always cooperate fully.

We also work with trade unions to help our employees. During the pandemic, we organized vaccination days at the company where employees were able to get vaccinated.

We also provide housing for those who request it, and we are constantly working to help with family reunification where possible.

In light of the above, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, we will forward our response to you to the competent authorities who monitor our company on a daily basis, including our production and export activities, so that they can consider how it would be most appropriate to respond to the allegations you have made.

In regard to the inquiries received concerning the conditions of workers employed in kiwifruit cultivation in the province of Latina, we would like to inform you of the following.

Granfrutta Zani is an Agricultural Cooperative Society formed by producer members in many regions of Italy, including the Latina area.

The aim of Granfrutta Zani is to promote the fruit and vegetables produced by our member companies and to make the best use of them.

Granfrutta Zani is therefore its own legal entity that has no responsibility for the conditions on the orchards that supply us.

Granfrutta Zani's responsibility is to market a safe, healthy product that does not harm the consumer.

Nevertheless, we are aware of the ethical, social and environmental issues and problems in supply chains.

As a cooperative, we are directly involved in and have close control over the staff working in our production and storage facilities, and as such we have full responsibility for the working conditions and treatment of our employees.

On the other hand, we require the orchards supplying Granfrutta Zani to sign a production agreement that includes a series of hygienic, sanitary, environmental and ethical-social requirements.

The companies working with Granfrutta Zani sign this supply agreement at their own responsibility, thus guaranteeing their compliance with the ethical-social requirements we impose, which are based on applicable regulations and international codes of conduct such as ILO, ETI and BSCI.

Granfrutta Zani also recommends our suppliers to use the GLOBALGAP GRASP (GLOBALGAP Risk Assessment on Social Practice) certification scheme and promotes certification through training courses, consultancy and through incentives for certified production.

The main objective of this certification scheme is to reduce the main ethical-social risks in production and to demonstrate compliance with good ethical-social practices through certification by third-party bodies.

To achieve this goal, our own staff carry out spot checks on the certified farms (which currently cover more than 80 percent of the production marketed by Granfrutta Zani). Here they inspect contracts, pay slips, the observation of workers' rights, and the working conditions. They conduct regular meetings between worker representatives and their employers, including interviews with workers.

If we find ethical and social problems on farms, we take appropriate measures, which in the most serious cases can lead to the termination of the cooperation agreements between the farm and Granfrutta Zani.

However, we would like to remind you that our checks, like those carried out by external, third-party certification bodies, are spot checks. Our task is not and cannot be to take over the tasks of the Working Environment Authority. We do not have the necessary competences or the money to do so, as we are not a regulatory body.

In recent months, Granfrutta Zani has developed a new Code of Ethics for the company, which is not yet available. The current Code of Ethics is based on the international ETI and ILO standards and is only valid for Granfrutta Zani, its own facilities and employees.

Granfrutta Zani is itself GRASP-certified (as are most of its member farms) and underwent a SMETA ethical, social and safety workplace assessment in 2021; which will be conducted again in 2023.

If you need further information, we are happy to arrange a meeting at our office.

On behalf of the Soc. Agricola Zeolifruit Coop I thank you for including the aforementioned company in your journalistic investigation, but I must inform you that they do not wish to participate at the time being.

This is also considering that the employees referred to in this study do not belong to the company that I represent... although they may be connected through business relationships.

Further to your request for information, we would like to clarify that Apofruit Italia is a first-class agricultural cooperative engaged in the collection, storage, processing and marketing of fresh fruit and vegetables supplied by its producer members.

Our staff work exclusively in the processing industry and are not employed on the field.

All products supplied by our members, including kiwifruit, must meet Good Agricultural Practice requirements and are subject to various certification schemes, including GLOBAL G.A.P GRASP certification.

Our cooperative is not entitled to conduct investigations into working conditions between member companies and its employees, but as we are particularly sensitive to the issue, we request the aforementioned GLOBAL G.A.P GRASP certification, as it is an internationally recognized third-party and independent certification system for the fruit and vegetable sector. It includes labour rights, safety, the health and welfare of workers, and ensuring the ethical development of the entire supply chain involved.

Graphics: Ditte Ahlgren and Johan Seidenfaden

Apofruit denies all responsibility and in short points out that all their suppliers have the GRASP certification, which sets a number of requirements for transparency and working conditions.

Zeolifruit refuses to cooperate and Salvi did not respond to our inquiries at all.

At Zani Granfruttai, however, they were more responsive.

Quality Manager Enrico Foschin responds in an email that they carry out random checks on the 80 percent of their suppliers who are currently GRASP-certified.

"Here we inspect contracts, pay slips, check the respect of workers' rights and working conditions, conduct regular meetings between workers' representatives and employers, including interviews with workers", he writes.

"If we find ethical and social problems on farms, in the most serious cases, this can lead us to terminate the cooperation".

Enrico Foschin does not address the reports of hourly wages of 5-5.6 euros, verbal abuse, falsification of pay slips. Or the issue of migrant workers' indebtedness and their heavy dependence on the orchard owners.

Many Danish and international companies have signed up to various codes of conduct that commit them to avoid a negative impact on the environment and human rights.

The most important being the UN Principles on Human Rights and Business (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Both sets of rules describe the company's co-responsibility for what happens throughout the supply chain. For those who supply the company and those who use the company's products.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are not legally binding, but they are indicative guidelines that apply to all businesses in all countries, regardless of their size and form.

  • According to the UNGPs, all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, i.e. they are responsible for assuring that no human rights are violated and to address any negative human rights impacts in which they may be involved.
  • A core principle of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is the duty to conduct a conscientious due diligence process.
  • This means that the company must carry out a risk assessment of whether the company risks adversely affecting human rights and in which ways.
  • The company must have a plan of action to prevent these risks.
  • The company must also follow up, monitor and mitigate any adverse human rights impacts.
  • And then the company must report on its efforts.
Sources: UNGP, OECD

At Kiwi Pontino, however, an unnamed project manager flatly denies that the problems have anything to do with them.

"These allegations cannot relate to the situation at Kiwi Pontino", he writes.

"Our employees are treated in full compliance with the rules, but above all we respect them. After all, it is our employees who are responsible for the daily production and they are an important part of our business".

In addition, Kiwi Pontino underlines that the Italian authorities monitor the company and the company has always cooperated with them, giving the authorities access to all parts of the company.

Maunganui Road, Tauranga, New Zealand

Concern for the conditions

On the other side of the world, near the extinct Maunganui volcano in northern New Zealand, lies the world's largest exporter of kiwifruit, Zespri International.

It is a global company that in recent years has become a major player in kiwifruit production and exports from Italy.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who collect agricultural statistics from around the world, Italy is currently the world's third largest producer, with an annual production of 420,000 tons of kiwifruit.

And Zespri is playing a key role in this development, explains the company's Head of Communications Yannis Naumann. Every year, Zespri invests in establishing several new kiwifruit orchards, and by 2023, Zespri will be buying and exporting kiwifruit from no less than 1,200 orchards in Italy, which it will sell on to a large number of countries, mainly in Europe, including Denmark.

According to the Zespri's website, the global kiwifruit company is committed to sustainability and its employees. It states, among other things, that Zespri will "work to ensure that all employees are valued, protected and supported in their work".

"We will attract talent and continue to build a thriving workforce amongst our value chain by 2030. Thriving means continually improving social practices in relation to working conditions, pay, health & safety, development, and diversity and inclusion", as stated in the company's sustainability statement.

But how does this relate to debt slavery, underpayment and the exploitation of Indian migrant workers in Italian kiwi fields?

We would have liked to ask Zespris CEO Daniel Mathieson what they, as major players in the Italian market, are doing to ensure decent conditions in the kiwifruit industry.

But Zespri has declined this. Instead, Nick Kirton, Zespri's European head, replied to us by email:

"We take the allegations of exploitation extremely seriously and have launched an investigation into the situation, including how best to support the workers concerned," he wrote.

"Among other things, we have contacted all our Italian suppliers, expressing our concerns about the alleged practices and reiterated the requirements for worker welfare as a condition for supplying Zespri".

Nick Kirton, like the Italian wholesalers, emphasizes that all their suppliers have GAP certification. "And on top of that, Zespri also has a set of core values that all our suppliers have to live up to," he says, adding that the organizations that certify for Zespri in Italy have also been contacted.

"The vast majority of employers in the kiwifruit industry take good care of their people," Nick Kirton points out.

"But there may be a small minority who do not. Any form of worker exploitation is unacceptable and we will ensure that those involved are held accountable and we will continue to improve our control systems to ensure that this does not happen," he says, urging anyone with information about poor labour practices in the Italian kiwifruit industry to contact Zespri via the company's confidential hotline EthicsPoint - Zespri International.

Two out of every three kiwifruit

But the supply chain does not stop with the Italian wholesalers or the major international exporter Zespri.

According to Statistics Denmark, two out of every three Danish kiwifruit come from Italy. In fact, Danish stores import at least 2000 tons of kiwifruit from Italy every year.

With the help of Danish supermarket chains, website searches, social media, promotional magazines, visits to various stores and lists of producers found on the internet, Danwatch, IrpiMedia and The Wire have managed to piece together the kiwifruit supply chain all the way back to Denmark.

We discovered that Lidl, Salling Group, Dagrofa and Rema 1000 all sell kiwifruit originating from Lazio. Together, the four retail groups own the supermarkets Lidl, Netto, Føtex, Bilka, Meny, Spar, MinKøbmand, LetKøb and Rema1000. All of which import kiwifruit from Lazio - either directly from Italian wholesalers or from the major international exporter Zespri.

Despite several requests, none of the four food corporations would agree to be interviewed about the conditions in Lazio's kiwifruit orchards.

Profilvej, Kolding, Danmark og Stiftsbergstraße, Neckarsulm, Tyskland

Lidl referred us to a hotline

At Lidl's Danish head office in Kolding, head of communications, Thomas Sejersen, refuses to divulge who supplies kiwifruit to Lidl, nor does he answer direct questions about the conditions of kiwifruit workers.

However, according to Lidl's international website, Zespri is a kiwifruit supplier for Lidl. And it was from Lidl's central communications department in Neckarsulm in southern Germany that, after many attempts, we finally received a response via email.

Like several of the wholesalers, an unnamed Lidl spokesperson explains that all their fresh produce producers have to fill in a declaration of GAP certification.

"Lidl has a zero-tolerance policy towards any kind of human rights violations in our supply chains", writes the communications department, emphasizing that Lidl is committed to the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business (UNGPs).

In addition, the German-owned chain says it has a whistleblower hotline for complaints, and Lidl promises to investigate all specific reports of violations of its code of conduct.

We asked the communications department if they thought that the Indian kiwifrui workers in Lazio would know that Lidl buys the kiwifruit they pick and if they would see the point in complaining to their hotline.

"We have been using the system for several years and can assure you that the system is accepted and used", Lidl writes. However, to date, Lidl has not received any complaints about kiwifruit suppliers or orchards in Italy.

Marsallé 32, Horsens, Danmark

Rema 1000 washes its hands of the matter

Norwegian-owned Rema 1000, which currently has 363 supermarkets in Denmark, also confirmed that it gets some of its kiwifruit from Lazio.

According to Communications Manager Jonas Schrøder, nine different producers and wholesalers are involved, including Zani, who exports kiwifruit from the Lazio province.

However, in an email response, he writes that Rema 1000 does not recognize the reports of debt slavery, underpayment, wrongful dismissal, verbal abuse or the falsification of pay slips.

"We have not found there to be any violations and our supplier certainly does not believe that there are any violations in his supply chain", Jonas Schrøder writes, but acknowledges that Italy does not have the best reputation when it comes to worker conditions.

"We are in close contact with our kiwifruit suppliers and we have assessed Italy as a medium-risk country in terms of human and labour rights violations," he writes.

"As our kiwifruit suppliers are GRASP certified and have signed our Code of Conduct, we are confident that working conditions are in order".

He does not elaborate on the basis of this trust.

Kærup Industrivej, Ringsted, Danmark

Dagrofa takes the issue on board

The Dagrofa group currently has 511 stores, including 111 Menu supermarkets, 124 Spar supermarkets, 163 Min Købmand supermarkets and 113 LetKøb supermarkets, and it also sources its kiwifruit from Italy, including organic kiwifruit from Lazio.

Dagrofa responds to Danwatch in an email.

However, no upper management members from the large group, which employs more than 13,000 people, are willing to be interviewed about the problems in the Italian kiwifruit sector.

However, Henrik Johannsen, Dagrofa's CSR manager, writes in an email that the group will pursue the matter further.

"We take note of Danwatch's observations from the area and will continue to work with the limited information you have made available to us. Currently, we have arranged a joint meeting facilitated by the Danish Ethical Trade Initiative Denmark for further dialogue", he writes.

Dagrofa would not elaborate on the exact purpose of the meeting or who will be in attendance, but the Danish Ethical Trading Initiative network subsequently has invited Danwatch to the meeting to discuss possible solutions to the working conditions in Italy.

Rosbjergvej, Brabrand, Danmark

Salling Group is investigating the case

Another supermarket chain also buying kiwifruit from Lazio is Salling Group, who operates more than 1,700 stores across the Bilka, Føtex, Netto and Salling chains.

According to Salling Group's website, the group has signed up to the UNGuiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and several other similar guidelines, all of which emphasize the company's commitment to respecting human rights.

Therefore, Danwatch has asked Salling Group what they are doing to ensure good working conditions in kiwifruit production, and what they are doing to rectify the conditions unearthed by our investigation.

"We are aware that throughout Europe, and particularly in Southern European countries, migrant workers are used in the agricultural sector," writes Henrik Vinther Olesen, Deputy Head of Communication and Sustainability.

He assures us that Salling Group takes Danwatch's findings "very seriously" but has not witnessed the conditions we have described.

"We are in continuous dialogue with our suppliers, and all our manufacturers are subject to social audit documentation requirements, and no deviations of this type have been observed," writes Winther Olesen, but promises to investigate the matter further.

Henrik Vinther Olesen does not elaborate on how Salling Group intends to do this.

This article has been produced in collaboration with IrpiMedia and The Wire. The project has received funding from Journalismfund.eu.

Undersøgelsen delt op i artikler
Denne undersøgelse har fået et efterspil

Dokumentation

Gå ikke glip af den næste afsløring

Nyhedsbrev sign-up
heartexit-upmagnifiercross linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram