With a low voice, hunched shoulders and glazed eyes, Gurjinder Singh recounts fifteen years of exploitation in the kiwi fields of Latina province in Italy’s Lazio region. Sitting in a bar in the central square of Cisterna di Latina, he has just finished work.
Gurjinder is fifty years old and has worked for several firms in the area, earning between €5 and €6 per hour. In the smaller ones he never had a contract and received his pay in cash at the end of the day. Recently, he worked in a company where over 70 workers were employed. They were supervised in groups by foremen who often insulted them and threatened to beat them up. His is not an isolated case.
Exploitation in the kiwi chain
In 2021 Italy exported 320,000 tonnes of kiwi fruit to fifty countries, for a turnover of over €400 million. This made it Europe's leading producer and the third in the world after China and New Zealand. Lazio is Italy's top region for growing the "green berry". Globally, one third of all retail-marketed kiwis come from the multinational Zespri. Founded in New Zealand, it is a market leader and present in six countries. In Italy alone it accounts for almost 3000 hectares of fields, plus hundreds of local producers and thousands of labourers.
It is difficult to know the exact number of farm workers employed in the kiwi harvest because "they often work illegally," explains Laura Hardeep Kaur, a trade unionist with FLAI CGIL in Latina province. Most of the labourers are Indians from Punjab, of Sikh religion.
According to Italian social-security data, there are approximately 9,500 Indian labourers in Latina, with more than one million days registered in fixed-term contracts. Marco Omizzolo, a migration specialist at La Sapienza University in Rome, estimates that there are about 30,000 Sikhs in the area. He is under protection after receiving threats for his efforts to fight the "caporalato" system – a designation for abusive labour – in Lazio's Agro Pontino (Pontine Marshes). Included in the estimate are those without residence permits, residents in other provinces, and those who have recently arrived but have yet to be counted.
From more than fifty interviews conducted for this investigation in Italy and in India, between May and December 2022 – with workers, trade unionists, researchers, Indian families, Punjab travel agents and intermediaries – a picture emerges of singularly undignified working conditions. It is one of starvation-level wages, irregular contracts and the constant threat of violence. There is also the never-ending blackmail linked to the residence permit, which is impossible to renew without a company providing a formal job contract.
Wages are never more than €7 per hour, and tend to be lower, averaging between €5 and €6 – well below the approximately €9 gross per hour established by the provincial contract as the basic wage of an agricultural worker. The stratagem of so-called "grey work" is often used – the payment of wages partly regularly and partly in the black. It is a widespread system among entrepreneurs in the area, enabling them to pay lower social levies and taxes while maintaining a formal regularity that makes controls more difficult. Other abuses also seem commonplace: dismissals without justification, inadequate sanitary facilities, excessively short breaks, and a lack of – theoretically compulsory – personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks.
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The business where Gurjinder Singh worked for three years sells kiwis to Zespri. In the fields, the "caporale" (supervisor) filmed him three times while he stopped to drink or because something got into his eyes. The videos served – at least that's what the supervisor threatened – as "proof" of his inefficiency, to be handed over to the head of the company. The "warning" could also serve to justify not paying other workers their full wages.
Stories of abuse by bosses and supervisors are frequent among the area's Sikh community. There have even been cases of punitive attacks on labourers who have tried to rebel. Some have been hit by cars as they cycled to the fields, others robbed and beaten up, or – on at least one occasion – threatened in front of their home with a shotgun.
Asked why he did not leave, Gurjinder Singh replies: "I had no choice, I had to earn for my four children and my wife. They stayed in India, I haven't seen them for thirteen years."
The responsible parties
From September to November, crossing the province of Latina means immersing oneself in a landscape of kiwi fields and coloured crates, called "bins" in the parlance. Each colour of bin corresponds to a Producers' Organisation (OP), cooperatives which take charge of the kiwis destined for the foreign market. Thirteen of these have a licence to sell to Zespri.
The multinational is best known for its yellow-fleshed variety, the "SunGold", the most widely planted in Agro Pontino (69%, the rest being the green variety). Zespri is the owner of the international patent of the same name and only allows its plants to be cultivated on the basis of a contract. It determines the number of hectares and licences for cultivation, distributing them to consortia or cooperatives which, in turn, seek out farmers. The local producers do not pay for the licence, but are required to become members of the cooperatives that bear the costs of the packaging.
From the fields the kiwis are taken to the large warehouses of the OPs and then to the factories. There they are packaged and become Zespri kiwis: the multinational company's label is the first stage in their marketing across Europe. The chain is surprisingly complex. Marco Omizzolo describes it as a kind of "entrepreneurial treacle", where there are those who produce and those who sell to another producer, who in turn sells to a brand.
The system, however, clearly works. Between 2021 and 2022, Zespri had a turnover of €2.5 billion, with more than 200 million boxes of kiwi fruit sold worldwide. Helping the expansion in Lazio was the climate, which is almost identical to New Zealand's, despite changes due to global warming. While in New Zealand it is spring, in the northern hemisphere it is autumn, and vice versa: for the multinational this means year-round production and profits.
In 2019 there were 2,700 hectares of SunGold kiwis in Italy. The goal, the company announced, is to …