Will organic farming improve rights for agricultural workers?

by Paolo Riva | Photo: Diego Ravier | 05.02.2022

With the EU preparing a revolution in organic farming, what are the risks of exploitation, and the opportunities, for the low-paid laborers in the fields of Italy?

3.22 euros
The online price of a packet of organic cherry tomato puree produced and sold by OP Principe di Puglia, which describes itself as “one of the most important producers of organic vegetables and fruit in the southeast Italian region of Puglia”. 

4.50 euros 

This is the hourly wage that, according to testimonies collected by investigators, one of OP Principe di Puglia’s companies paid to Aboubacar Baman, a 34-year-old laborer from the Ivory Coast, to harvest those organic tomatoes. Though Italy has no official minimum wage, this figure violates the minimum threshold laid down in national and territorial collective agreements.

In April 2021, the OP Principe di Puglia was at the center of an operation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Foggia against illegal intermediation and labor exploitation, in practice, against ‘caporalato’ (forced labor). 

The justice system now waits for an indictment. 

Organic farming has boomed in the EU in recent years, with consumption and production at an all-time high. This development is being further encouraged and subsidized by the European Union, and its latest Farm to Fork strategy. Consumers are willing to pay more for organic products, because of the perceived benefits for their health and the environment. 

But does their growth, production and sale improve the lives of those working at the frontline of harvesting and processing? Cases such as Principe di Puglia raise the question of whether, even with large subsidies and high prices, organic farming is improving the conditions of farm laborers, or continuing a trend in the exploitation of the low-paid and largely foreign workforce.


“The Farm to Fork strategy is at the heart of the European Green Deal, which aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly” is how the European Commission defines the strategy presented in May 2020 to “accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system”. The objectives of the initiative include reaching “at least 25% of the EU agricultural area in organic farming by 2030” because this type of agriculture “has a positive impact on biodiversity, creates jobs and attracts young farmers”. 

In the EU Member States, the area devoted to organic farming has grown by almost 66% in the last ten years and now accounts for 8.5% of the EU’s total “utilized agricultural area”. Thanks to an action plan from March 2021, it could grow further. The strategy is not binding in itself. However, when implementing rules and laws or aligning with existing EU policies, member states will be bound to respect the targets set by the Commission. This is the case, for example, with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Agricultural worker Mor moved from central Senegal to Rignano Garganico, Italy in 2020. For five months he has slept in an abandoned farmhouse, while working on the fields picking every crop, from asparagus to tomatoes.

Organic farming, explains the Association of Italian Biological Agriculture AIAB, is “a method of cultivation and breeding that allows only the use of natural substances” which are “present in nature, excluding the use of substances made from chemical synthesis”. Organic farms are required to comply with labor regulations, but the authorization they need to carry an ‘organic’ label does not concern the treatment of their workers. The criteria necessary for organic agriculture concerns only the provenance of the products.

Organic organizations, such as IFOAM, are wise to workers’ rights, and emphasize that “those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties – farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers.”

But there is a recognition among organic associations that there are cases where organic farming does not imply ethical farming, when it comes to workers’ rights. In 2020, Federbio, the federation of organic farming organizations in Italy, announced that it would become a civil party in an Apulian case involving organic agricultural production. FederBio, commented president Maria Grazia Mammuccini at the time, “has always collaborated with the judiciary and law enforcement agencies to protect real organic production and to defend ethical and sustainable work that is fairly remunerated. These criminal practices must be fought and eliminated in order to defend the majority of honest Italian organic companies”. 

The case in question was that of Settimio Passalacqua. 

In July 2020, this entrepreneur from Apricena, in the province of Foggia, was accused of illegal intermediation and labor exploitation. At the time, companies belonging to Passalacqua’s family employed hundreds of laborers with a turnover of several million euros, mostly related to organic products. According to the indictment, some of the companies paid workers, mostly foreigners and residents in local ghettos, up to 3.33 euros per hour. Again, this figure is below the accepted level in national and territorial collective agreements. 

The best-known location is Rignano Garganico, an irregular settlement in the middle of the countryside, among olive trees, made up of occupied farmhouses, shacks, caravans and makeshift shelters. 

“Usually about 800 people live here, but during the summer it can host up to twice that number,” explains Khady Sene, a Caritas worker from Foggia.

Joseph, a farm laborer from West Africa, lived in the ghetto for a year. Then he found a job in an organic farm in the area, where he stayed on-site. However, the conditions were far from ideal.

“I bought my gloves with my own money,” he says. “I buy with my own money socks. I buy with my own money water. I buy house rent to them too with my own money. There were eight of us in the room and I paid 185 euros a month [in rent]. I was getting three euros per hour. I worked eight hours, nine, sometimes eleven, when I was needed, either in the fields or in the warehouse.”

According to his description, the company he worked for employed more than 200 people and still produces organic vegetables, mostly for export.

Despite having a regular agricultural contract, the worker tells us he was paid for far fewer days than he actually worked, so as to comply – only formally – with the minimum pay standards laid down in national agreements. This was not black labor, but grey labor. In Italian agriculture, this is a widespread illegal practice, which allows companies to pay less in wages and taxes. 

“I slowly realized that something was wrong,” says Joseph. “I went straight to the boss. He said: yeah this is the way I work. If I want to work, it’s OK. If I don’t want to work, he let me leave. This is the way they work.”

These forms of exploitation are widespread as they are difficult to prove.

The shanty-town of ‘Gran Ghetto’ in Rignano Garganico, Foggia, Italy.

“The organic sector is not exempt from the temptations of exploitation and caporalato"

“We also have disputes and reports in the organic sector,” says Jean René Bilongo, trade unionist and head of the FLAI-CGIL’s Placido Rizzotto Observatory. “It cannot be said that the sector is exempt from the temptations of exploitation and caporalato.” 

Meanwhile, Giulia Laganà, an analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, adds: “organic farming has the same problems as conventional farming: large retailers and middlemen cause exploitation” in order to maintain a low price strategy. 

Cases of exploitation in organic farming are present not only in Italy’s poorer southern regions but also in the richer north, such as in the wine region of Piedmont. In February, the first trial for ‘caporalato’ in the Saluzzo fruit district is due to be heard in a court in the city of Cuneo. The defendants include family farmers Diego Gastaldi and his mother Marilena Bongiasca. In recent years, their companies have converted to organic farming and, during this process, Diego Gastaldi claimed that this transition created difficulties for the company, which led to them paying farm-workers cash-in-hand.

According to the indictment, he and his mother paid African workers “wages that were clearly not in accordance with the law and collective agreements […] and in any case disproportionate to the quantity and quality of the work performed”, with “a minimum wage of EUR 5 per hour’ [as opposed to the 7.47 decided by collective bargaining] and without “the payment of at least two-thirds of social security contributions”. 

But are these cases isolated or part of a broader, and more worrying trend?

According to the technical director of the NGO Rural Seeds Network, Riccardo Bocci, it remains to be seen “if the growth of this sector keeps pace with its ethical, social and political ambitions”. 

An issue is that organic production, rather than remedying the existing problems in the food sector, has replicated some of the worst excesses of conventional production.

“Today, the increase in sales of organic products linked to large-scale organized distribution and, above all, to discount stores, raises doubts about ethicality, for the rights of workers but also for the whole system of consumption and production,” adds Bocci.

The Senegalese worker Alex picks grapes for Acquamela Bio, in Cerignola, Foggia, Italy.

“Organic gives us the economic capacity to respect workers' rights”

Organic expert Lucio Cavazzoni was president of Alce Nero, one of the biggest Italian brands in the sector. 

He has seen cases of large and medium-sized farms switching to organic because of advantages linked with subsidies and prices and states that ‘exploitation is exploitation, even in organic farming’.

But he does believe that ” the great mass of organic producers” are not using these illegal practices. 

The NGO Terra! works with farms and producers who actively oppose criminal hiring practices. The ‘IN CAMPO! senza caporale’ [In the fields without gangmasters] project has provided fifteen laborers from sub-Saharan Africa with training, support in leaving the ghettos and regular employment in companies in the Foggia area. These include Aquamela bio, in Cerignola, a municipality of 60,000 inhabitants with one of the largest agricultural areas in Italy. 

“Organic is oxygen [for my farm],” says Vito Merra, as he picks grapes with a team of laborers, some Italian, some foreign.

Aquamela bio belongs to Merra and his brother Roberto, and includes 23 hectares, on which they also grow cereals and olives, used to produce their own oil. The workers are all legal: Aquamela bio pays them for all the days they actually work, allowing them to reach the minimum number of days required for unemployment benefits. “Organic products are more valuable and give us higher margins. And the subsidies help too,” explains Merra. 

The Terra! experience is positive but small. It concerns a few dozen workers and a few companies, compared to more than 70,000 active organic farms in Italy and about 180,000 vulnerable laborers estimated by the FLAI-CGIL throughout the country. It is significant, however, because it highlights how this type of agriculture could contribute to the fight against exploitation. 

Because organic farming is considered good for the environment and personal health, it is supported by subsidies from the EU. Italy, according to the latest available data, is the European country that, in total, has received the most funds for organic farming from the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Moreover, organic products are sold at higher prices than conventional ones. According to ISMEA, the Institute of Services for the Agricultural Food Market, producers of organic oranges receive a farm gate price of 24% more than for conventional ones, while tomatoes are 53% higher, and apples by 103%. 

But there are downsides. Because organic farms do not use chemicals, they have a smaller yield than conventional farms, and have additional costs to secure organic certification, which is expensive for a small farm.

The gamble is worth it, argues Vito Merra of Aquamela bio.

“Organic gives us the economic capacity to respect workers’ rights,” he says.

The Pakistani worker Akif picks grapes for Acquamela Bio, in Cerignola, Foggia, Italy.

"I accepted to be exploited [because] otherwise I would not have obtained the renewal of my residence permit”

So organic farming can help, but on its own, it is not enough to change the situation. According to operators and experts in the sector, more controls are needed from the National Labor Inspectorate, whose staff should be increased, and stricter criteria for organic certification. In addition, it would be important to reflect on the extent to which Italian immigration laws create a reservoir of foreign workers with no alternatives: non-EU citizens whose presence in Italy is often linked to securing a work contract. 

“I have always accepted to be exploited for the simple reason that otherwise I would not have obtained the renewal of my residence permit,” explained an African laborer with disarming candor during a hearing at the Court of Cuneo. 

European funds also play an important role: for many farms, both organic and non-organic, they are vital and therefore their disbursement should be linked to respect for workers’ rights, as provided for in the new EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). 

This scheme will now include a ‘social conditionality’ clause, meaning that CAP beneficiaries will lose CAP funds if they don’t respect EU social and labor law. This will be voluntary from next year and mandatory from 2025.

“I see no difference between conventional and organic farming,” says Paolo De Castro, former Minister of Agriculture, now MEP for the Democratic Party – S&D Group. “The exploitation of workers is such a scourge, that it is no coincidence we have decided to combat [this] by including social conditionality in the reform of the CAP. This tool should ensure that public funds no longer go into the pockets of those who do not respect rights.”


The CAP is the Common Agricultural Policy, a scheme that accounts for the largest share of the EU budget. For the period 2021-2027, this amounts to 387 billion euros or one-third of EU finances. According to many environmental organizations, the new CAP will not allow the EU to achieve the objectives of the Green Deal and thus also of the Farm to Fork strategy. 

But for Daniel Freund, German MEP for the Greens, who opposed the CAP reform, this is not enough. 

“Why does it take so long just to comply with basic social and health standards on farms that are sometimes really scary?” he says. “The rules [to protect workers] already exist. Why aren’t they being implemented right away?”

According to the legislators, the transitional period is necessary to allow the EU states to organize themselves, as the way in which funds will be disbursed (or denied) will be decided by each country. 

For Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary-general of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), “social conditionality must be applied as soon as possible and correctly.”

A key issue, in his mind, is the individual state’s capacity to undertake inspections on farms, which are currently too weak and infrequent.

“As trade unions,” he adds, “we support the From Farm to Fork strategy and the growth of organic farming for environmental reasons, but the ecological transition must be an opportunity to improve working conditions and not a threat.”

A worker returns from the town where he went by bus to buy water. He lives in an abandoned farmhouse in Rignano Garganico that has no running water.

Organic Farming Keeps Business “Viable” for Future Generations

One of the major reasons that the EU supports organic farming is because this style of agriculture attracts younger farmers into a sector which is suffering from an aging workforce.

This generational divide was played out during a hearing at the Court of Cuneo, where it emerged that farmer Diego Gastaldi disagreed with his father Graziano on the type of agriculture the family farms should practice. 

The elder parent wanted to continue with the conventional method he knew. His son, who was born in 1993, was pushing to go organic and succeeded. 

This difference in views is present across Italian agriculture. More than 60% of the heads of Italian farms are over 55 years old, 38% even over 65. In a sector largely made up of family farms, the generation of children is often more educated than their parents and more interested in organic farming, either out of conviction or because it offers an attractive business opportunity.

One trade unionist explains that he has spoken to entrepreneurs interested in regularizing the position of their farmworkers, partly as a result of anti-caporal actions by the police and the judiciary. “They are interested in organic farming because they think it could be a way to employ workers legitimately while keeping the company economically viable,” says the unionist. 

For the moment, these are isolated cases. But in the future, with generational change, the enforcement of social conditionality, tighter controls and growing demand for organic products, they could increase. 

In the meantime, even at Aquamela bio, in Cerignola, generations alternate. Vito Merra now farms with his brother Roberto on the land that his grandfather obtained during the land reform following the second post-war. 

“His generation was combative,” he says. “It was the generation of Giuseppe Di Vittorio.” This refers to an influential post-war union leader, who was born in Cerignola, and became secretary of workers’ union CGIL. 

Their father, who worked as a farmer, is now retired. But soon, another generation will arrive in the olive trees and vines–that of Roberto’s son. 

“He is studying agronomy at university,” says his father, proudly. 

Additional reporting by Vlad Odobescu and Michael Bird

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund.