Three of the world’s largest tobacco manufacturers, #Philip_Morris, #British_American_Tobacco and #Imperial_Brands, are buying leaves that could have been picked by exploited African migrants working in Italy’s multi-million euro industry.
Workers including children, said they were forced to work up to 12 hours a day without contracts or sufficient health and safety equipment in Campania, a region that produces more than a third of Italy’s tobacco. Some workers said they were paid about three euros an hour.
The Guardian investigation into Italy’s tobacco industry, which spanned three years, is believed to be the first in Europe to examine the supply chain.
Italy’s tobacco market is dominated by the three multinational manufacturers, all of whom buy from local producers. According to an internal report by the farmers’ organisation ONT Italia, seen by the Guardian and confirmed by a document from the European Leaf Tobacco Interbranch, the companies bought three-fifths of Italian tobacco in 2017. Philip Morris alone purchased 21,000 tons of the 50,000 tons harvested that year.
The multinationals all said they buy from suppliers who operate under a strict code of conduct to ensure fair treatment of workers. Philip Morris said it had not come across any abuse. Imperial and British American said they would investigate any complaints brought to their attention.
Italy is the EU’s leading tobacco producer. In 2017, the industry was worth €149m (£131m).
Despite there being a complex system of guarantees and safeguards in place for tobacco workers, more than 20 asylum seekers who spoke to the Guardian, including 10 who had worked in the tobacco fields during the 2018 season, reported rights violations and a lack of safety equipment.
The interviewees said they had no employment contracts, were paid wages below legal standards, and had to work up to 12 work hours a day. They also said they had no access to clean water, and suffered verbal abuse and racial discrimination from bosses. Two interviewees were underage and employed in hazardous work.
Didier, born and raised in Ivory Coast, arrived in Italy via Libya. He recently turned 18, but was 17 when, last spring, a tobacco grower in Capua Vetere, near the city of Caserta, offered him work in his fields. “I woke up at 4am. We started at 6am,” he said. “The work was exhausting. It was really hot inside the greenhouse and we had no contracts.”
Alex, from Ghana, another minor who worked in the same area, said he was forced to work 10 to 12 hours a day. “If you are tired or not, you are supposed to work”, otherwise “you lose your job”.
Workers complained of having to work without a break until lunchtime.
Alex said he wasn’t given gloves or work clothes to protect him from the nicotine contained in the leaves, or from pesticides. He also said that when he worked without gloves he felt “some sickness like fever, like malaria, or headaches”.
Moisture on a tobacco leaf from dew or rain may contain as much nicotine as the content of six cigarettes, one study found. Direct contact can lead to nicotine poisoning.
Most of the migrants said they had worked without gloves. Low wages prevented them from buying their own.
At the end of the working day, said Sekou, 27, from Guinea, who has worked in the tobacco fields since 2016: “I could not get my hands in the water to take a shower because my hands were cut”.
Olivier added: “I had pain all over my body, especially on my hands. I had to take painkillers every day.”
The migrants said they were usually hired on roundabouts along the main roads through Caserta province.
Workers who spoke to the Guardian said they didn’t have contracts and were paid half the minimum wage. Most earned between €20 and €30 a day, rather than the minimum of €42.
Thomas, from Ghana, said: “I worked last year in the tobacco fields near Cancello, a village near Caserta. They paid me €3 per hour. The work was terrible and we had no contracts”.
The Guardian found African workers who were paid €3 an hour, while Albanians, Romanians or Italians, were paid almost double.
“I worked with Albanians. They paid the Albanians €50 a day,” (€5 an hour), says Didier. “They paid me €3 per hour. That’s why I asked them for a raise. But when I did, they never called back.”
Tammaro Della Corte, leader of the General Confederation of Italian Workers labour union in Caserta, said: “Unfortunately, the reality of the work conditions in the agricultural sector in the province of Caserta, including the tobacco industry, is marked by a deep labour exploitation, low wages, illegal contracts and an impressive presence of the caporalato [illegal hiring], including extortion and blackmailing of the workers.
“We speak to thousands of workers who work in extreme conditions, the majority of whom are immigrants from eastern Europe, north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. A large part of the entire supply chain of the tobacco sector is marked by extreme and alarming working conditions.”
Between 405,000 and 500,000 migrants work in Italy’s agricultural sector, about half the total workforce. According to the Placido Rizzotto Observatory, which investigates worker conditions in the agricultural sector, 80% of those working without contracts are migrants.
Multinational tobacco companies have invested billions of euros in the industry in Italy. Philip Morris alone has invested €1bn over the past five years and has investment plans on the same scale for the next two years. In 2016, the company invested €500m to open a factory near Bologna to manufacture smokeless cigarettes. A year later, another €500m investment was announced to expand production capacity at the factory.
British American Tobacco declared investments in Italy of €1bn between 2015 and 2019.
Companies have signed agreements with the agriculture ministry and farmers’ associations.
Since 2011, Philip Morris, which buys the majority of tobacco in Campania, has signed agreements to purchase tobacco directly from ONT Italia.
Philip Morris buys roughly 70% of the Burley tobacco variety produced in Campania. Approximately 900 farmers work for companies who supply to Philip Morris.
In 2018, Burley and Virginia Bright varieties constituted 90% of Italian tobacco production. About 15,000 tons of the 16,000 tons of Italian Burley are harvested in Campania.
In 2015, Philip Morris signed a deal with Coldiretti, the main association of entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector, to buy 21,000 tons of tobacco a year from Italian farmers, by investing €500m, until 2020.
Gennarino Masiello, president of Coldiretti Campania and national vice-president, said the deal included a “strong commitment to respect the rights of employees, banning phenomena like caporalato and child labour”.
Steps have been taken to improve workers’ conditions in the tobacco industry.
A deal agreed last year between the Organizzazione Interprofessionale Tabacco Italia (OITI), a farmers’ organisation, and the ministry of agriculture resulted in the introduction of a code of practice in the tobacco industry, including protecting the health of workers, and a national strategy to reduce the environmental impact.
But last year, the OITI was forced to acknowledge that “workplace abuses often have systemic causes” and that “long-term solutions to address these issues require the serious and lasting commitment of all the players in the supply chain, together with that of the government and other parties involved”.
Despite the code, the migrants interviewed reported no change in their working conditions.
In 2017, Philip Morris signed an agreement with the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) to hire 20 migrants as trainees within the Campania tobacco producing companies, to “support their exit from situations of serious exploitation”. Migrants on the six-month trainee scheme receive a monthly salary of €600 from Philip Morris.
But the scheme appears to have little impact.
Kofi, Sekou and Hassan were among 20 migrants hired under the agreement. Two of them said their duties and treatment were no different from other workers. At the end of the six months, Sekou said he was not hired regularly, but continued to work with no contract and low wages, in the same company that signed the agreement with Philip Morris.
“If I didn’t go to work they wouldn’t pay me. I was sick, they wouldn’t pay me,” he said.
In a statement, Huub Savelkouls, chief sustainability officer at Philip Morris International, said the company is committed to ensuring safety and fair conditions in its supply chain and had not come across the issues raised.
“Working with the independent, not-for-profit organisation, Verité, we developed PMI’s Agricultural Labor Practices (ALP) code that currently reaches more than 350,000 farms worldwide. Farmers supplying PMI in Italy are contractually bound to respect the standards of the ALP code. They receive training and field teams conduct farm visits twice a month to monitor adherence to the ALP code,” he said.
“Recognising the complex situation with migrant workers in Italian agriculture, PMI has taken supplementary steps to gain more visibility and prevent potential issues through a mechanism that provides direct channels for workers to raise concerns, specifically funding an independent helpline and direct engagement programme with farm workers.”
On the IOM scheme, he said: “This work has been recognised by stakeholders and elements are being considered for continued action.”
Simon Cleverly, group head of corporate affairs at British American Tobacco, said: “We recognise that agricultural supply chains and global business operations, by their nature, can present significant rights risks and we have robust policies and process in place to ensure these risks are minimised. Our supplier code of conduct sets out the minimum contractual standards we expect of all our suppliers worldwide, and specifically requires suppliers to ensure that their operations are free from unlawful migrant labour. This code also requires suppliers to provide all workers, including legal migrant workers, with fair wages and benefits, which comply with applicable minimum wage legislation. To support compliance, we have due diligence in place for all our third-party suppliers, including the industry-wide sustainable tobacco programme (STP).”
He added: “Where we are made aware of alleged human rights abuses, via STP, our whistleblowing procedure or by any other channel, we investigate and where needed, take remedial action.”
Simon Evans, group media relations manager at Imperial Tobacco, said: “Through the industry-wide sustainable tobacco programme we work with all of our tobacco suppliers to address good agricultural practices, improve labour practices and protect the environment. We purchase a very small amount of tobacco from the Campania region via a local third party supplier, with whom we are working to understand and resolve any issues.”
ONT said technicians visited tobacco producers at least once a month to monitor compliance with contract and production regulations. It said it would not tolerate any kind of labour exploitation and would follow up the Guardian investigation.
“If they [the abuses] happen to be attributable to farms associated with ONT, we will take the necessary measures, not only for the violation of the law, but above all to protect all our members who operate with total honesty and transparency.”