On Tomatoes, Racial Capitalism and Barikamà

Full Professor in International and European Union Law

The tomatoes on offer in our supermarkets are often an insult to human dignity. In this opinion piece, tomatoes become the material evidence of a broken economic system, enabled by a troubling web of laws. Alessandra Arcuri offers a glimpse into the structural conditions of exploitation in our contemporary food supply chain, hinting at some of its root causes. Drawing attention on local experiences of resistance, she argues that European institutions should get inspiration from these bottom-up alternative models of sustainable agriculture to shape the new Farm-to-Fork strategy, allegedly at the earth of European Green Deal.

More than 2000 kilometres drive and I am there, as every summer, in Calabria (South of Italy). During the last 200 kilometres, I am taken aback by contradictory feelings. So much violated beauty. Incompiuto (unaccomplished) is the architectonical dominant style down here. The landscape, with its stunning beauty encased in abusive buildings and dumped waste, reflects a society that is hostage to racketeering. I grew up thinking that racketeering was idiosyncratic to the South and I headed North. To then realize that there is no innocent North, we are all in this: a global racket society. Tomatoes are exhibit A.

Today (23 August 2020) I can buy a tin of tomato sauce for 51 Euro cents in the Albert Heijn (one of the most important Dutch supermarket chains). Too wrong to be true, I think. But it is true, as true is the violence and exploitation, which is along the supply chain.

Muhamed Abdullah was 47 when he collapsed while picking tomatoes in a field in Apulia, on a hot July afternoon in 2015. He was working 12 hours per day, with no contract, no water and no hat. A seasonal worker from Sudan, Muhamed never met his wife and child again as his life ended in the tomatoes field that warm afternoon. During the investigations, the Italian public prosecutor followed the tomatoes, discovering that high up in the supply chain, they became products of well established brands such as Mutti and Cirio.  Sadly, the story of Muhamed is not unique. On August 6, 2018, a terrible accident took the life of Aladjie Ceesay, Ali Dembele, Moussa Kande, Amadou Balde and 8 other migrant workers near Nardò, Apulia. The migrants were packed in a van, driven by someone who had neither a driving licence nor insurance. Only two days earlier a similar accident took the life of another 4 migrants in the same area. Amadou from Mali was also one of the many African workers of the Italian fields, living in miserable conditions in shanties. He was 31, when on April 7, 2020 he lost his life in the plain of Gioia Tauro. Amadou was fatally injured by another inhabitant of the shantytown, known to be mentally unstable; there is no sanitary assistance, let alone psychiatric assistance in the shantytown. According to a local newspaper, Amadou died of ghetto.

Many of those stories are told in the new book of Antonello Mangano, Lo Sfruttamento nel Piatto (Exploitation at the Table, my own translation). Mangano is an experienced journalist who started to work on organized crime in the South of Italy. He almost naturally turned to the study of the food supply chain, soon discovering that that it was almost more difficult to understand how food is produced than investigate organized crime. In his book, Mangano shows how the exploitation is not to be found only in the backward South, but is also in the rich and ‘civilized’ North. The extremely fragmented supply chain enables a system of capillary exploitation: from the fields to the logistic of packaging. Exploitation is visible everywhere (geographically, across the supply chain and beyond tomatoes. Incidentally, if you are part of the Dutch speaking community, and want to see it with your eyes, don’t miss to watch the well researched series by the Keuringdienst van waarde).

Gangmastering (caporalato) seems to be the engine. Virtually at every level of the supply chain there is a gangmaster (also referred to as middleman, in Italian ‘caporale’), who recruits and organizes the cheap work through extortive practices. But it would be naïve at best to think that the exploitation and violence is the offspring of local organized crime entrenched in cultural backwardness – something closer to a Netflix series like Suburra than to our normal economic system. As noted in the book by Mangano, ‘gangmastering is the most efficient system for companies to manage agricultural workers’ (at p. 111, translation and emphasis are mine). It is noticeable that the Italian term ‘caporalato’ can also be translated as ‘corporate.’ In a 2016 Report on the supply chain for oranges, we read: ‘If today, all the caporals would magically disappear, would the exploitation of workers still exist? … The answer is a dramatic yes’ (my translation from Italian). This is not to say that organized crime and the vast sacks of illegality spread throughout the European territory (and concentrated in the South of Italy) are not part of the problem. They certainly are and Europe would be so much better off if it would tackle more seriously the bonds between organized crime and financial cities or radically rethink its anti-money laundering policy. So, let us not be misled by appearances, the injustice and unsustainability is not driven by under-developed criminal regions, cultural backwardness or ineluctable complexity. It is injustice by design. And our laws are heavily implicated in it.

Trash near tomato fields in Calabria

Varieties of Racial Capitalism

Amidst a Covid dominated news stream during the summer, Dissent Magazine published an interesting exchange on the meaning(fullness) of the term racial capitalism. While not particularly well read on the topic, as a voracious eater of tomatoes, I could not stop wondering whether capitalism is fundamentally racist

At first, it seems that tomatoes are the smoking gun of racial capitalism. The accident of 2018 in the road of Apulia, where the human blood of black migrants mixed with the tomatoes, may be one of the most evocative, as dramatic, images of the entrenchment of capitalism with racism. Through a web of laws (migration law coupled with violent border policing, no legal protection for undocumented human beings, weak labour standards, rules on trade liberalization, etc.), making migrants de facto rightless, our capitalist system can thrive on the production of cheap things. Is then a tomato not one of the irrefutable proofs of racial capitalism?

And yet, I should also confess some ambivalence towards the racial part of the term. My ambivalence stems from the fact that in using the term ‘racial’ to describe a system of exploitation, you rest on a conceptual category which was created to realize that very system: race. Science tells us all too clearly that, if at all, there is only one human race: Homo Sapiens. Race is a social construct and the rest is pretty much powerful pseudoscience, which enabled colonial relations. It may be no coincidence that, as Angela Saini recently noted, ‘[t]he key figure [in race science] was Wickliffe Draper, an American textile multimillionaire … deeply wedded to maintaining segregation in the United States.’ Historically, race served the colonizer to realize his extractivist and exploitative project. So, capitalism is racial as it deploys the construction of categories to group people and make them vulnerable.

In the production of tomatoes different vulnerable groups are exploited. Black migrants are one of the most significant groups. But there are also Romanians and women. Thousands of Romanian women, working as pickers, are daily exploited in the Italian fields and many of them are also sexually abused. As highlighted in the 2016 Report on the dirty supply chain, ‘migrant work has been the lab for a model of slavery work to be extended to others’ (my own translation). And so we can add Italians to the list of agricultural martyrs, such as Paola Clemente who died on a field paid about 2 euros per hour. Call it varieties of racial capitalism, if you like. At this point, I am in a state of depression, which I realize is not most helpful if you want change. Thankfully, some of the exploited peasants come to rescue.


In January 2010, in a violent act of protest, hundreds of African migrants took the street of Rosarno, a village in the Southern part of Calabria. The protest was triggered by an episode of racism (one of the many), when some Italian guys shot with air guns at African migrants. Racist violence, daily exploitation, and the confinement of African migrants in shantytowns are the norm in Rosarno. Drawing on Spinoza’s category of indignatio, Del Lucchese sees in the Rosarno revolt an important act of resistance: ‘The explosion of violence of 2010 is not a sad and powerless rage (although it happens in a condition of misery and exploitation, which – themselves – can only produce sad affects). It is rather the necessary response of a common being who reclaims his own neglected humanity through a violent resistance against the oppressor. Life itself is resistance.’ Four of the young men who joined the Rosarno revolt, moved to Rome and initiated a beautiful project: Barikamà, which in Baramà means resistance. They now produce yoghurt and organic vegetables, which they sell at local markets and through solidarity purchasing groups (in Italian Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale, GAS).

Next to Barikamà, there are many other instances of resistance. SOS Rosarno, for example, pulls together small-scale agricultural producers, who practice organic agricultural in full respect of workers rights. They operate in the very region where the revolt started and are building a human and different agriculture, empowering the most vulnerable. They believe in the ideals of food sovereignty, and in this spirit part of the price you pay for their vegetables is used to fund activities supporting the rights of agricultural workers. SfruttaZero and Funkytomato are other examples of initiatives born to stop the exploitation and construct a new model of sustainable agriculture. These projects are all successful cases of resistance and the evidence that a different model of agriculture is possible, one which starts from the de-commodification of agricultural workers and the environment. From these experiences there is much to learn and it is to be hoped that European institutions start to engage more seriously with those who are able to offer valid alternatives.

Prof. Alessandra Arcuri

Addressing the Big Disconnect 

This summer, I met Antonello Mangano for an informal conversation about his book and he told me that during his interviews with the companies high up in the supply chain, he was exposed to a common narrative: it is not possible to know all the chains in the production process. Mutti and Cirio, for example, have not been found liable for the death of Muhamed Abdullah. How could they, vis-à-vis an impossible knowledge to master?

If we want to help Barikamà in the collective project of fighting the system of exploitation in our food supply chain, we should not buy cheap excuses. To be sure, this is not to point the finger to a specific company. In fact, Mutti is in favour of higher transparency in the supply chain. But, public regulators can and should do more. In a world where multinationals can monitor our heartbeats, should they not be able and legally required to control the unhealthy state of their supply chains? It is not the goal of this blogpost to make an inventory of solutions. Regulators could start by looking at the proposals made by those with lived experiences. While the 2016 law to fight caporalato in Italy is certainly an important step forward, the root causes of the systems remain unaddressed. The law helps to prosecute the people who materially enact the exploitation and violence, as well as those who indirectly exploit by recruiting through the caporals. After 10 years from the Rosarno riots, despite some islands of resistance, systemic forms of exploitations still prevail. As an old Italian adage says, ‘the fish smells from the head.’ One problem is that retailers often impose prices, which can only be maintained through exploitation. The book of Mangano, drawing on extensive research and on reports produced by the Unions and various NGOs, offers a wealth of ideas on how to address exploitation in meaningful ways. For example, making transparent labels mandatory. While blockchain may not be a panacea, this and other new technologies could also be used to track the working conditions of farm workers. Products made in respect of human rights should not be part of a niche market for fair trade consumers, they should be the norm. And this leads me to another foundational problem: the normalization of monstrosity.

As TWAIL scholars have amply shown, many of our trusted legal institutions (such as trade and investment treaties) were designed to exclude and marginalize. Their contradictions and its underpinning injustice have been magisterially exposed. In this system, precarity is foundational, not just a by-product. So we know. And yet our existing disciplinary boundaries continue to normalize monstrosity. The system of international economic law has developed in a sort of splendid isolation from the domain of human rights. We have been taught (and sometimes have taught) that international trade law is about trade, not human rights. Occasionally links can be made with issues such as environmental law or human rights, just to fend off the critique that international trade and investment laws encroach on domestic regulatory rights. The specific exceptions in our treaties are the sites for forging such tenuous linkages. But the economy functions the way it does precisely because of the widespread exploitation of humans and the environment. Let us then stop talking of linkages and recognize that what we have been nurturing is a big disconnect. As I recently wrote, for a Special Issue of the Journal of International Economic Law, ‘the positioning of human rights or the protection of the environment outside the realm of economics is analytically flawed. It is worth reiterating the Greek etymology of the word ‘economy’: coming from Öikos (house) and nomos /nemein (law/norm). Economy is hence commonly referred to as the management of the house. And the house is on fire. With the overwhelming scientific consensus on the phenomenon of climate change, one should expect that this would be the main preoccupation of institutions of economic governance. The artificial boundary drawn between the economic and the non-economic to exclude human rights or environmental protection is analytically untenable and yet, this argument has often been made to insulate trade and investment law from the demands of justice. There is obviously no sane economy without healthy environments or the respect of human dignity.’

In this context, the new Report of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors part of the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) of the European Commission released in May 2020 on ‘a sustainable food system’ should be welcome. One idea central to the Report is that in order to achieve sustainable food systems, we need to move away ‘from food as a commodity to food as more of a common good.’ The patterns of de-commodification discernible in Barikamà and the other local initiatives of sustainable food production and distribution mentioned above could then become a source of inspiration for possible transformative change. In giving more substance to the new Farm-to-Fork strategy, European institutions may greatly benefit by consulting these people, while shielding themselves a little more from the relentless lobbying of multinationals who are part and parcel of the current system of unsustainable agriculture.


Alessandra’s research studies how different international and EU legal regimes are implicated in the production of environmental degradation and social injustice. More concretely, she focuses on the field of international economic law and the relationship with human rights, environmental and public health law as well as on the global governance of risks and the emergence of global technocracy. By investigating and charting mechanisms by which exclusion and inclusion are produced through international legal institutions, her research contributes to better understand structural problems of the existing legal system and identify concrete ways to address them.

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