On Tuscany’s Farms, Women Migrant Laborers Face Exploitation

Sexually predatory bosses add to the hardships of ill-paid foreign workers who fled war and poverty to Italy

On Tuscany’s Farms, Women Migrant Laborers Face Exploitation
Migrant agricultural workers protest their work conditions in Rome. (Sirio Tessitore/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In beautiful Tuscany, famous for its ancient landscapes and delicious cuisine, there is a class of people who are deprived of their rights and, often, of hope. From dawn to dusk they work stooped over, picking fruit and vegetables that will become the ingredients of Italy’s most famous dishes — 12 hours a day in the summer heat and a somewhat shorter day in the cold of winter. This goes on in the hills of Arezzo, where castles have been transformed into luxury tourist resorts; in the turreted villages of Val di Cornia, where artists and writers move in search of a peaceful and harmonious life; and in the Maremma countryside, dotted with ancient stone farmhouses coveted by holidaymakers from all over the world.

This is the dark side of Tuscany: Just a few miles from stunningly beautiful Renaissance landscapes are scenes of hellish exploitation. The laborers are mostly women; many of them are passing through Italy on the last leg of a journey that began in sub-Saharan Africa. They walked across deserts, survived dangerous sea voyages and violent traffickers, Libyan prisons and Mediterranean storms — only to end up in the hands of yet another type of torturer, the so-called “caporali” (corporals), gang masters who recruit and oversee the laborers on behalf of farm owners.

“They treat us like animals,” said Mary, who is from Nigeria. She and her children live in a house with other migrants on the outskirts of the city, not far from the farms where she was exploited for years. It is a temporary home, made available via a charity because she needs proper shelter while taking care of her newborn baby. She told New Lines that she preferred not to invite us in, out of respect for the privacy of her housemates, so we sat outside. A few miles away there are farms with neatly planted rows of grapevines and tomatoes. It feels like an idyllic setting, but for Mary it has become a trap.

“The situation in Libya is worse because the jailers can shoot you, but at least there I did not work without being paid,” she said. “In Tuscany I harvested grapes, filled crates with tomatoes, onions, lettuce and spinach from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Many times, however, the caporali paid me far less than I was owed.”

There is no respite, even for expectant mothers. Mary said that she worked under those conditions in her seventh month of pregnancy. “They respect nothing,” said Mary, holding her infant while braiding the hair of her four-year-old daughter.

Finding people willing to speak about the appalling conditions imposed on agricultural workers is not easy. There is an atmosphere similar to “omerta,” the mafia code of silence. In Italy, asylum-seekers often live in a suspended reality: When they land in Sicily they apply for political asylum, but the bureaucratic backlog means that years can pass before they receive a response. Since 2023, Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government has tightened Italy’s immigration policies, making it more difficult for those arriving from certain countries in Africa and Asia to apply for refugee status. As a result, the people who most need legal protection are left without it.

Asylum-seekers are severely limited in the type of work they may do in Italy. Officially they are entitled to legal, health and language assistance as well as integration courses, but in practice they receive nothing because the government has starved the programs of adequate funding. For most undocumented workers there is no alternative but to work without a contract if they want to survive; this is why abuses go unreported.

“We are women, foreign and black. We are second-class human beings, arms to be used. We count less than tractors,” said Awa, who fled from the Sahel region. Women, said Awa, are paid far less than men. “They promise 5 euros per hour for 12 hours a day, but at the end of the month they pay only 600.” Tuscany’s collective labor agreement for agricultural work specifies a minimum wage for farm workers varying between 7.40 and 10 euros per hour, depending on the level of experience.

Betty, who is also from Nigeria, agreed to meet us at a train station far from where she works, feeling that the distance and crowds of people offered her the safety of anonymity. If the bosses saw her speaking to a reporter, she would lose the job that allows her to earn just enough to stay alive. “The first rule I learnt in Italy to work is to obey, never ask for more money. Always obey, always say thank you and never go to the police.”

WeWorld, an Italian nongovernmental organization that works to protect the rights of migrant women and their children, documented the lives of these female workers for six months in cooperation with the civil society research cooperative Tempi Moderni. They conducted their investigation cautiously, to avoid alarming the caporali. Speaking to the women on the farms was impossible; the investigators had to contact them at their lodgings and win their trust. On several occasions while reporting for this article, caporali removed me from the workers’ camps, claiming it was “private property.” We also used drones to take photos, trying to fly them as high as possible.

The caporali arrive at dawn to collect workers from the “centri di accoglienza,” the reception centers reserved for political asylum-seekers. They transport them to the farms in vans. At the farms, overseers use brutal tactics to control the laborers. “They were always shouting ‘Quick! Fast!’ and we never had a break. They only gave you a few minutes to drink: If you wanted to eat, you had to do it secretly. Many gave up and waited for the evening meal,” said a Nigerian woman.

Summer, when the tourists arrive in Tuscany to enjoy a holiday, is the worst time for the farm laborers. Last July, the temperature stayed above 40 degrees Celsius for weeks. “The hardest season is the tomato season,” said Mary, as she breastfed her baby son on one of her rare days off. “There is no shade, and the heat does not let up. The sun sets late, and you have to work as long as there is light, even for 13 hours. My husband saw that I was sick and complained to the guards, but they are ruthless and would not even give us hats.”

The agricultural sector in these provinces never rests. In winter, luxury vegetables like purple artichokes and fennel are harvested. And the cold is merciless. Sonya, a 30-year-old migrant worker from India, told New Lines that she had suffered a miscarriage due to the cold and harsh working conditions.

In order to protect her safety, a reporter and a humanitarian NGO worker arrived in a car to pick Sonya up at an isolated roundabout, which she arrived at by bicycle, and drove with her to a cafe next to a gas station in a remote area of Tuscany to conduct the interview. We were far from the small village where she lives, but still she feared being discovered. She chose the most secluded table in the cafe and maintained a downward gaze, her face covered by her long black hair. Each time someone entered the cafe she looked up with a fearful expression. WeWorld is trying to help her establish financial independence. At the moment, however, she is content simply to regain her dignity.

Speaking about her miscarriage, Sonya said: “The ER doctor said I was spending too many hours on my feet. I would also spend many hours with my hands submerged in ice-cold water washing vegetables. We didn’t have gloves; we did everything with our bare hands. Water freezes not only your hands but your whole body, especially in winter or when it rains. Then there was often water on the ground, and I didn’t always have boots. For three or four days I had normal shoes because the boots had broken, and I didn’t have time to go and buy new ones.” She showed me her hands, which were covered in sores caused by the cold and the harvest tools.

In Val di Cornia those who dared to protest were insulted by the guards, who called them “animals” and “slaves.” But the violence goes beyond the verbal variety. Sexual abuse and harassment are common. In Arezzo, Sonya tried to help a 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman; she was supporting her mother after her father died in an accident in the Marghera shipyards, on the outskirts of Venice: “The caporal was sleeping with that girl,” said Sonya. “If she had refused him, he would have fired her. She told me in Bengali that the Italian boss knew because the caporal had told him about it. And everyone was fine with that. But in our [South Asian] culture this is a very serious thing: Now everyone treats her like a prostitute. I tried to help her, but it was very difficult. Sometimes the boss would touch her while she was working. She pretended nothing happened. She let it go. But I know she was in a lot of pain.”

Louise, a farm worker from Nigeria said: “A Romanian woman refused to ‘go to the toilet’ with her Italian boss. She was very beautiful. The boss insulted her and then fired her overnight.”

Grace, from Nigeria, said: “I did not think the work would be so hard. I considered myself strong, but I changed my mind [after working on the farm]. It was not just physical tiredness. Sometimes I felt tired inside: I could always feel the eyes of the male bosses on me. When I arrived in Italy I learned how to defend myself while working as a prostitute, standing half-naked in the street; now I felt fragile again.”

Foreign women are exploited to a much greater extent than their male counterparts. Not only are they paid far less than Italian laborers; they also receive at least one-third less than foreign men. To keep the jobs that pay a bare living, these women must put up with bosses who shower them with verbal abuse, force them to work beyond their physical capacity, deny them the money they have earned — and prey on them sexually.

These women left their countries because they aspired to a better future. “Nobody wants to work like that. If they do it is because they have no alternative, because they absolutely want to work and have nothing better,” said Beth, one of the few Nigerian women with a university education. With 10 siblings and parents experiencing financial problems, Beth was forced to drop out of university, where she was studying economics. She is one of the few who, after working as a vegetable picker, managed to find what she called a “regular job” as a waitress in a restaurant.

All the foreign women who work as agricultural laborers experienced the trauma of the journey to Italy, especially the dangerous sea crossing, with hundreds of refugees crammed into tiny boats that are often not seaworthy. Beth cannot forget it: “The crossing was very difficult. After a few hours the boat started to take on water. People were terrified, shouting, flailing. Then we were rescued by another ship.”

Statistics show that it is women who risk the most on the journey from Africa to Sicily: They make up only a fifth of the migrants who reach the shore, but 70% of the bodies recovered from shipwrecks in 2018 were female, according to the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre. Even for Mary, sailing from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa remains an indelible nightmare. “I saw people die,” she said. Mary survived “by a miracle,” but was hospitalized for a week after disembarking. Their harrowing journeys weigh heavily on the psyche of these women, making them willing to endure nearly anything to avoid going back.

In Tuscany these women are almost invisible. Their lives are in the hands of the caporali; these men are almost always Pakistani or, in rare cases, Indian. “We never spoke directly with the Italian owners,” said Mary. “We saw them when they came to talk to the Pakistanis. They would look around, they would walk around the grounds, but they avoided us. They gave instructions to the Pakistanis, on what had to be done and how it had to be done, and then they left. Once I tried to talk to the owner, but he pretended not to understand me and turned away.”

The caporali are protagonists in a form of exploitation that has deep roots in southern Italy. The “caporalato” system, whereby gang masters meet farmers’ short-term labor requirements, dates back to at least the late 19th century, and in some places has become entwined with large-scale organized crime. This criminal phenomenon is still widespread in southern Italy, especially in Apulia, Sicily, Campania and Calabria, where for 30 years it has imposed its rules on waves of immigrants, first from Eastern Europe then from Africa. But Tuscany has a history of civic engagement, with a deep tradition of strong trade unionism and active farmers’ cooperatives. This is what made the discovery of laborers trapped here in abusive, slave-like conditions so shocking.

Three years ago the judiciary and the Guardia di Finanza, state investigators of economic crimes, caused a stir when they exposed the organizations that employed farm laborers without a contract. Tuscany’s agricultural products are associated with an image of quality and harmony, both in Italy and abroad. The region’s wine, oil, flour, jam and vegetables are considered the best in the world. Because fruits and vegetables have a short supply chain, they are served at local restaurants and hotels and sold in Tuscan supermarkets.

Recently, however, Tuscany has seen some changes in policy toward foreign workers, due partly to findings published by WeWorld. While in the southern regions, illegal labor practices are easily visible, with workers living in cardboard and sheet-metal shacks, in Tuscany the Italian farm owners make an effort to maintain the appearance of a legitimate business. They entrust the management to front companies, usually registered in the name of foreigners, so that when the inspectors come the farm owners can claim it follows legal and ethical policies. Contracts often do exist — particularly for Romanian employees, because they are European citizens, but also in some cases for Africans. But the front companies record far fewer hours than the workers actually put in, with the difference paid off the books.

Elena, a Romanian worker, said that for years she was promised a proper contract, but it never materialized and her working conditions did not improve. “We worked up to 12-13 hours a day, often without a weekly break, but our pay stubs showed we were being paid for only six to eight days per month. The rest was paid off the books. This way, I could never apply for unemployment benefits.” Elena approached the local labor union for help, only to be told that she needed proof she had been paid for at least 51 days per year to qualify for unemployment benefits. “I felt as though I had been robbed twice,” she said.

The fear of being unemployed is what keeps everyone silent. Adriana, a 55-year-old Romanian woman, has been working in the fields for nearly 13 years, “picking artichokes, spinach and melons.” Her face is hollow and sunburned, her back stiff and painful, and she has arthritis in her hands. “Now I feel that I can no longer get up when I bend down, or I freeze when I stand for a long time to harvest. But where will I go if I get fired? Who will give work to a foreign woman, old and weak? And so I continue, enduring the pain.”

Some Romanian women did find the courage to blow the whistle and reported their working conditions to the local farmers’ unions. Unions inform and raise awareness on worker’s rights — many do not know what rights they’re entitled to. They also support women in administrative and legal procedures to obtain the correct application of contract clauses according to the national collective labor agreement, including rates of pay and working conditions.

Thanks to the courage of these women, local authorities have initiated a criminal investigation into the practices of three farms in Val di Cornia, an expanse of green hills overlooking the island of Elba. The investigation found 900 people working under conditions that are illegal, with 571 of them employed without a contract. However, one of the Guardia di Finanza investigators said, “It was not possible to quantify exactly how many workers were involved, because many of them were dismissed by one of the three suspects and then called back to work by the others within a few weeks, to prevent them from claiming a long-term relationship.”

The three entrepreneurs under indictment, according to several media outlets including Guardia di Finanza, have paid as much as 5.8 million euros in fines. When Mary talks about her ordeal as a laborer on a farm where every olive tree has its own irrigation channel and the rows of vines are perfect, she says the plants are treated better than humans. “When I saw the prices of the vegetables I harvested at the supermarket, I was angry. I wondered why they pay us so little.”

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