This year, Europe has seen unprecedented numbers of refugees and other migrants cross over its borders - well in excess of 350,000 people, who - driven by fear of war and terror or by poverty and the promise of a better life - have made the treacherous journey by land and sea out of the Middle East and Africa.

Very few of them will have official status or the right documents, most are short of money and don't know how they will survive, but all hope they will find a safe haven - be it temporary or permanent - in a continent that seems peaceful, prosperous and secure. And for some - the fortunate minority - that is indeed what they will find. They will be taken care of. But many won't. Desperate, vulnerable and ever fearful of deportation as illegal immigrants, they will be forced to live on the margins, to go wherever they can, and take on whatever work they can get to survive.

And that can lead them wide open to exploitation. 

This is the illuminating story of just one group of last summer's arrivals: migrants into southern Italy who became reluctant recruits in a vast army of casual farm labourers. It is a story that says as much about modern Europe as it does about the migrants as the story touches the tens of millions of the continent's citizens who purchase or consume one of Italy's most famous foodstuffs: its rich, sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes. 

Aerial view of illegal migrant workers picking tomatoes from one of the fields of the Caponata region [Al Jazeera] 
Italy is one of the world's top exporters of tomatoes and derivative products, such as processed pasta sauces and toppings. It is a three-billion-euro-per-year industry that mostly stems from tomatoes picked in southern Italian regions like Puglia, Basilicata and Foggia that are processed and packed in local and regional factories and then sold to retailers across the continent and beyond.

Most of us who have ever gone into a supermarket will have seen cans of Italian tomatoes or jars of sauces or frozen pizzas and other tomato-related foods that bear a 'Made in Italy' label. And of those products, as many as one in two will have been made with tomatoes handpicked in fields from huge swaths of land near Foggia, known as the Capitanata 

During the harvesting season between June and October, tens of thousands of casual labourers descend on the Capitanata looking for work - and in recent years, many of them have been migrants. It's location makes it a key transit point for new arrivals who have made it across the Mediterranean to the southern Italian coast. 

All well and good, you might say - the migrants need money and they need to work, the farmers and landowners need people to pick their tomatoes in prime condition. It is a perfect and simple match, a balanced relationship based on demand and supply.

But of course, it is not quite that simple nor that balanced.

Many of the migrants are illegal: either waiting hopefully for official recognition and permission to stay in Europe or worried about being sent home. 

All they have to offer is their unlicensed labour, and it is not a sellers' market. The truth is: They are often badly exploited, paid a pittance for long, exhausting hours in the stifling hot sun and left to fend for themselves in abandoned and ruined farm buildings or squalid temporary ghettos made of salvaged plastic sheeting with no sanitation or running water. 

They have no employment contracts, few if any rights or legal protection, no official access to local authority services, nor any help - apart from the few charities and voluntary agencies working in the area. They can't complain or object, or they won't be employed at all. In order to work, they usually have to come to an arrangement with a gangmaster known as a Caporale (even though the process is supposed to be illegal in Italy), who takes a "fee" for transporting them to and from tomato fields owned by a local landowner, with whom the gangmaster has made "arrangements". As can be imagined, violence and intimidation are more than an occasional hazard.

Abdul Kone, a 20-year-old man from Cote D'Ivoire in West Africa, says he was forced to flee from his home to seek asylum in Europe.

He found his way - after a long and dangerous journey - to the tomato fields of the Capitanata but says he was trapped there by his poverty and his as yet unresolved status.

He describes his life now as akin to "slavery". A reluctant resident of the Rignano Garganico ghetto, a filthy, makeshift shantytown of shacks and tents that is home so some 2,000 people. He says he could barely believe his eyes when he arrived: "When I first came to the ghetto, I didn't think this was a place where humans lived." He points to one of the buildings, in which, he says, up to 80 people are crammed into a living space of 20 square metres that leaves no one with any room to move between the bedding and mattresses on the floor. Outside, a derelict row of chemical toilets in plastic are filthy and unusable, and people are forced to go and use the fields instead. 

We spoke to Ivorian harvester Abdul Kone: 'When I first came to the Ghetto, I didn't think this was a place where humans lived' [Al Jazeera]

Concetta Notarangelo is a volunteer worker for Caritas, a Catholic aid group that provides assistance to the migrants that reside in the Rignano Garganico ghetto. She says things may be bad there, but it is only part of a wider story. "The Rignano ghetto is certainly one of the biggest, but it is estimated that the province of Foggia alone counts, during the summer, 20,000 migrants. Two thousand are in the ghetto, but the vast majority live outside, more or less isolated in the nearby countryside." Ruined factories, abandoned farm building, barns and shacks, people live wherever they can - wherever there is a roof. 

And, as Abdul explains, if the living conditions are tough, the work is just as bad. "When you come to the ghetto, you have to wake up at 3am. You wash, you get ready, and then you go out on the side of the road and look for the Caporale. If they have work for you, they will say: 'I need 20 guys, 30 guys, 15 guys. Get in,' and people get in without trying to understand what is happening." 

In Italy, the minimum wage for agricultural work is supposed to 7.5 euros ($8.50) per hour and the working day cannot exceed a total of eight hours. However, migrants like Abdul are usually made to work for 10 to 12 hours per day and are paid piecemeal on the basis of the quantity of tomatoes they manage to harvest in a shift. It is exhausting work, pulling up tomato plants by hand for hour after hour and filling the crates that tomato product companies send along to the fields. Most workers are lucky to make 25 euros in a 12-hour stint.

So who is answerable for all this? The illegal gangmasters who arrange for the migrants to work for the landowners? Or the farmers who hire the labourers via the Caporale? Or the local and state authorities who know about the condition of the migrants but seem uninterested in their plight? The profit-hungry larger food production corporations, who buy the tomatoes at the lowest possible prices to make into the products that line the shelves of major supermarkets? Or us, as consumers, who buy those products at the cheapest prices we can pay, never thinking to ask how they came to be there? 

Italy is one of the world's top exporters of tomatoes and derivative products, such as processed pasta sauces and toppings [Al Jazeera] 

In this edition of People & Power , filmmakers Alessandro Righi and Emanuele Piano went in search of answers. But no one, it seems, was very keen to accept responsibility. Take Giuseppe Grasso, for example, who is the president of APO Foggia, an organisation that represents over 900 farmers with fields in the Capitanata. He says that, in fact, most tomatoes coming from his associations are harvested by machine rather than by hand, and that while there might be some illegal migrants at work in the industry, the problem has been exaggerated. "The connection between tomato harvesting and illegal labour is a cliche, often blown up to make the problem look bigger than it is." 

Moreover, if there are low wages in the industry, he says, it is not the fault of the farmers but a consequence of the price pressures put on them by the people who buy their tomatoes. "The price is influenced by a series of factors. Particularly, the price of the processed product and the production costs. The industry often complains that they are forced to sell at prices that are lower than their production costs, so they try to fill this gap by lowering the price paid to the farmers." 

So our team turned their attention to the role of the multinational food manufacturing industry in all this. Although it's by no means the only such company, one of the biggest processing plants in the Foggia region is owned by Princes Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mitsubishi corporation.

As well as being a supplier of own-brand products to major supermarkets in the UK and elsewhere, Princes also produces and sells canned tomatoes and sauces under its own well-known labels. During our time in the area, the company's trucks were often seen around the Capitanata, dropping off empty crates for tomato farmers, picking up full loads to return to the Foggia plant. So, while the company - and its industry - are not legally liable for the treatment of workers hired by farmers from whom they source their product, could consumers nevertheless consider them to have some moral responsibility for a supply chain at the bottom of which are exploited migrants? 

We asked for an interview. The company declined, but later we heard from its PR representatives, who told us the company was committed to fair and ethical trading and required suppliers to observe good working practises. They added: "Princes has an absolute respect for human rights and opposes any form of illegal labour. Contracts with tomato suppliers clearly stipulate ... that all rules of the National Collective Agreements, laws on national insurance and medical care, and all legislation related to immigrant workers and health and safety are to be respected." 

We also spoke to Antonio Ferraioli, president of ANICAV, the umbrella organisation of packaged food companies in southern Italy, to which Princes belongs. "We don't want to deny that this phenomenon exists. But it's not related to 100 percent of the harvest, and it doesn't happen only with tomatoes, so we must be fully aware of the problem, and each of us must do his share to solve it." 

Perhaps the only thing that is clear from this story is that in this one corner of Europe and in this one industry, at least, desperate migrants seeking a new life are indeed being exploited. But the tragedy is that in other industries and in other parts of Europe, similar examples can surely be found. For many, this harsh truth will be in bitter contrast to the dreams of a safer, more prosperous existence that brought them to Europe in the first place. 

Source: Al Jazeera