UK food processing company Princes Group has been linked to an ongoing investigation of migrant worker abuse on Italy’s tomato farms.

Princes Industrie Alimentari, an Italian subsidiary of Princes, procures tomatoes for the European and British food sector from supplier De Rubertis, a local producer currently being investigated over accusations of migrant farmworkers abuse.

Brought forward by Italian prosecutor Paola Guglielmi, the case accuses De Rubertis of operating under ‘conditions of absolute exploitation’, with reports of migrant farmhands working 12-hour shifts for seven days a week for as little as €30 per day. There are also allegations of workers being denied breaks or access to medical attention.

The issue has gained coverage since the death of Abdullah Mohammed, a 47-year-old Sudanese immigrant working legally at De Rubertis farms in 2015. It was reported that Mr Mohammed suffered a heart-attack while working on the farm in Nardò, southern Italy.  Guglielmi alleges that Mr Mohammed was denied access to a hospital, which could have prevented his death.

In a statement, Princes responded to the allegations: “We hold human rights in the highest regard and oppose any form of forced or illegal labour. PIA [Princes Industrie Alimentari SrL] is a strictly compliant organisation and proactive in ensuring our supply chain complies with Italian legislation and our own ethical standards. We can confirm that since 2016, we have sourced tomatoes from the De Rubertis farm and that our own due diligence measures have not found any evidence of illegality.”

This new development could be a sore point for Princes, who have implemented a series of measures to prevent systematic abuses. This included hosting a conference in 2016 regarding business ethics in the Italian tomato supply chain.

A key theme that arose from the conference was the principle that labour compliance from tomato suppliers is one way to improve ethical standards. PIA has additionally introduced measures such as in-field auditing, managing its supply base, conducting company risk assessments, and promoting the relevant Global Gap/GRASP accreditation.

Three of the largest trade unions responded to the recent accusations of worker abuse, saying: “The attacks by certain press outlets against the ethics of the Italian food chain, particularly against a sector of excellence like the tomato sector, are unjustified and spurious.”

Two Italian tomato producers, Mutti and Conserve Italia, were previously accused of similar abuses. Mutti vowed to fight ‘any exploitation of workers’ in the tomato production process.

Conserve Italia released the following statement condemning the abuse outright:
“Exploitation of any workers is truly abhorrent to us, and this case has again tragically highlighted that these practices are still continuing in today’s modern society, which is appalling.

“And while we agree that these cases need be brought to the attention of the public and authorities, we do not believe that sacrificing the excellent reputation of a 160-year-old brand and a highly ethical company like Conserve Italia, via a tenuous link, is the right and proper way to do this.”