A migrant workers' shanty town in Apulia, southern Italy

Forced labor in Italy cannot be tackled without international law

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Law & Policy

This article by our Advocacy Officer Carlo Ladd was originally published in Italian in Affari Italiani.

The world’s most important international law against forced labor has yet to be ratified by Italy.  And according to the academics and activists monitoring labor conditions in our country, it is urgently needed.

Protocol no. 29 (2014), which supplements the Forced Labor Convention (1930) of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO), makes important changes to its source document and adapts it to a world that has changed considerably in 90 years. The Protocol focuses in particular on prevention and on the protection of victims, especially migrants, taking into account the increasingly globalized nature of forced labor and human trafficking.

The treaty is recognized by many experts as the most comprehensive international instrument against forced labor. Author and researcher Leonardo Palmisano, journalist and activist Emma Barbaro, and activist and European policy expert Rosa Brignone, interviewed here, are among the Italians backing it.

“The Protocol is innovative in that it sets forth a strategy tackling three crucial and interdependent areas: prevention, protection of victims, and prosecution of perpetrators,” argues Brignone. “Yet the Protocol remains little-known in Italy. While numerous countries are yet to ratify Protocol no. 29, we are an outlier among our closest allies. A 2016 European Union directive instructed member states to ratify by the end of the year, and many have already done so. But with Luxembourg’s imminent ratification, Italy risks becoming the last founding member of the EU yet to ratify the Protocol.”

According to Emma Barbaro, editor-in-chief of Terre di frontiera, the Protocol is so little known that even many experts in the field are in the dark.

Through my work on these issues, I eventually found myself discovering the Protocol’s existence, and it was so strange. None of us knew about it. Absolutely none of us.

Why is awareness of the Protocol so low in Italy? Has forced labor perhaps already been eradicated, making it unnecessary? This couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, from the financial crisis of 2008 to the present day the issue has only become more pronounced.

The most common form of labor exploitation in Italy, the fraudulent recruitment practice known as caporalato, is for all intents and purposes a form of forced labor, including according to the ILO’s own indicators. A particular type of caporalato, that which taints the agricultural sector in southern Italy, is already relatively well known; indeed, the only recent significant progress against forced labor on the national level was the creation of Law 199 (2016), which defined the crime of caporalato for the first time.

But according to Rosa Brignone, director of the organization Time for Equality, the “anti-caporalato” law has given Italy a false sense of security. “In our attempts to promote the Protocol in Italy, we at Time for Equality have again and again come up against the widespread belief that the “anti-caporalato” law renders it unnecessary.”

While it is a crucial part of the fight against forced labor in Italy, the law alone is insufficient. It limits itself to penal sanctions, stopping short—contrary to the Protocol’s measures—of fixing the power imbalances between employers and workers and addressing the root causes of vulnerability to forced labor.

The law operates at the surface of the forced labor system, therefore, without going deeper. “The law may be designed to address a labor issue, but it is not fundamentally a labor law,” argues sociologist and author Leonardo Palmisano, winner of the prestigious “Golden Doves” peace prize for journalism.

Moreover, the law is insufficient because it does not fundamentally change the extremely vulnerable position of migrant workers in our country. Labor exploitation in Italy, as Palmisano says, “is sustained by the Bossi-Fini law, which lowers protections for migrant workers if they do not have a work contract and therefore renders them vulnerable to exploitation.”

The widely touted regularization of migrant workers brought forward earlier this year as a result of the pandemic did little to change this fact, and was described by many experts—including Barbaro and Palmisano—as a failure. Protocol n. 29, on the other hand, is clear on the topic of migrants: victims of forced labor must be protected, regardless of their legal status.

For Italy, as the first port of call for many migrants and refugees from Africa, it is particularly important to uphold the highest standards of international protection against exploitation.

But the “anti-caporalato” law is also insufficient because—and it is perhaps this point that can best serve as a wake-up call to Italians—forced labor in Italy is a much broader problem than that of exploited agricultural workers in the South.  According to Palmisano, the caporalato systems present in the country have not only strengthened themselves—they have expanded and transformed.

In the decade since the financial crisis, we have moved from a system of control through caporali (fraudulent recruiters) to one of mafia-type criminal control.

Various sociopolitical changes—including the decline of job centers, the fragmentation of temporary work agencies into ever-smaller units, and an uncontrolled growth in the number of labor unions—have permitted organized crime syndicates to take advantage of increasing poverty and seize greater power.

These criminal systems are not limited to agriculture, but taint services, transportation, warehousing—even journalism. Nor is forced labor limited, therefore, to migrant workers, and is often a matter not of undocumented workers but of workers that are hired legally—and then exploited.

There is a clear need for the Protocol: for a new catalyst to push forward the fight against forced labor in Italy. One need only take a careful look at the news to understand the severity of the situation.

The horrifying living conditions in migrant shanty towns, the tragic deaths of migrant works in the South: these realities have been well-documented in the media. For example, the case of Adnan Siddique, the Pakistani migrant worker murdered in Sicily in June.

But too many do not realize that these stories are merely the tip of the iceberg, and that for every high-profile victim there are dozens suffering silently: according to the Global Slavery Index, there are approximately 145,000 victims of modern slavery in Italy.

“[The Protocol] could be a way to expand perspectives on the “anti-caporalato” law and help Italians to understand that caporalato is not simply a problem of the agricultural sector,” says Barbaro. “And that alongside the criminal justice angle, prevention is crucial.”

For it is precisely prevention that is missing in Italy—starting with public opinion. Awareness and education on the issue of forced labor, a key point of the Protocol, is an urgent need.

“[The Protocol] can finally bring issues of labor and work back into the center of public debate, in a country that needs it,” says Palmisano.

Just as it is important to communicate that forced labor exists beyond the fields and shanty towns of the South, so it is also crucial to address the racism that has allowed Italians to ignore a problem they think does not affect them. It is not a coincidence that the law against caporalato was only created following the death of an Italian farmworker, Paola Clemente.

Public awareness leads to political and legal changes. The Protocol, after all, is not a law in and of itself, but as an international treaty it has a crucial symbolic value that can make it a catalyst for social and political change. It can hold the Italian political class to a new legal standard and stimulate reforms not only to labor rights, but to all laws—such as the Bossi-Fini law—that create conditions of vulnerability to exploitation.

“This could be the instrument by which we eliminate the differences [between Italian workers and migrant workers],” says Barbaro. “The key point isn’t to know whether I am Italian or migrant: the key point is to re-prioritize dignity of labor.”

With the recent celebration of the United Nations’ 75th anniversary, many governments are looking beyond the pandemic and reinforcing their commitments to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. Italy, which hosts multiple U.N. agencies and offices, has always been a staunch supporter of multilateralism and of international law.

The President of the Republic himself, Sergio Mattarella—marking the anniversary—said that “The Italian Republic is proud to have provided its contribution [to the U.N.], in accordance with the values of its Constitution.” Now is the time to reflect these values in the world of work too, and ratify Protocol no. 29.

Freedom United has gathered over 100,000 signatures calling on governments to ratify Protocol 29. Join them and add your name today.

Chip in and help end modern slavery once and for all.