"Controlling caporali: Modern slavery, migrant farmworkers, and the fight against gangmasters in Southern Italy"

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Sociology


Caporalato is the 'gangmaster' (or 'illicit employment') system blamed in mainstream narratives for the "modern-day slavery" living and working conditions of migrant farmworkers in the South of Italy. Against this system, and with the stated aim of bettering the conditions of migrant farmworkers, many different campaigns and initiatives have been organised in the last few years. The world of anti-caporalato is very diverse, including a recent anti-caporalato law (2016), that has been the basis for both stricter police control and institutional 'tables', which unite a broad range of players fighting against this phenomenon. NGOs, trade unions, and associations, as well as local and national governments, and the social responsibility apparatuses of agri-business companies, have taken a stance against caporalato, and organised projects to fight it. These anti-caporalato campaigns, however, have been formulated from very different understandings of what caporalato is (e.g. a problem of illegal migration or organised crime), and with varying concrete effects on the social processes shaping the plight of migrant farmworkers.

Exploring the diversity of these initiatives, the research will investigate their success against their stated aims, analysing to what extent they challenge, are limited by, or reproduce the terrible conditions of migrants in Southern Italian agriculture. The analysis will be elaborated through a broadly ethnographic, qualitative and interpretive approach, which will be based on an analysis (formulated with the support of the software NVivo) of three main sources of data: 1) the official materials published by institutions, NGOs and other relevant organisations; 2) the juridical files that illustrate the implementation of the 2016 anti-caporalato law (by police forces, lawyers and judges), kept in the tribunals' archives; 3) a large set of semi-structured interviews with migrant farmworkers and people working in the anti-caporalato initiatives.

Since caporalato has been convincingly argued to be a "perfect tool of control" for globalised, neoliberal, agricultural production, anti-caporalato could be expected to achieve greater freedom and autonomy for migrant farmworkers. Indeed, recent formulations of anti-trafficking, developed for instance by the ILO in 2016, focus specifically on global supply chains, and increasingly rely on corporate social responsibility schemes. However, when migrant farmworkers protest the paternalistic and securitarian approach of local NGOs, they posit humanitarian organisations as crucial actors in the "differential inclusion" of migrant workers as passive, illegalised, isolated, exploitable, vulnerable subjects. The distinction between freedom and slavery, so crucial to theoretical debates around anti-trafficking, becomes the everyday rationality of campaigns whose concrete effects are all but self-evident. Hence, it becomes urgent to empirically study how anti-caporalato initiatives, in their diversity as well as underlying unity, are intertwined with the different social processes that together shape the social, economic and political landscape ultimately resulting in the tragic conditions of migrant farmworkers.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2220601 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Gavriel Nelken