Working for Wine: A Tuscan Take on Immigrant Labor

Gueye Daro came to Italy twenty years ago from Touba, Senegal, a city two hours drive from Dakar. Today, he is one of Tecnovite’s foremen, managing teams that prune vineyards and olive orchards, harvest grapes and carry out other agricultural operations in Tuscany. He lives in Poggibonsi with his wife and three children, in a community of other Senegalese, many of whom he has brought on board at Tecnovite. He doesn’t hesitate to express his preference for Senegalese food, even after so many years in Italy, or to say “Muslim” when I ask what the area he’s from in Senegal is like. But he is also an Italian citizen, and says he feels at home here. “Mi vogliono bene,” he says, of the Tecnovite owners, using the phrase Italians use for their families, “I cherish you.” Daro, as he’s known at work, doesn’t drink wine or any other alcohol, although he helps make some of the most famous wines in the world.

Gueye Daro, in a Chianti Classico vineyard.

Reading about the accusations of labor abuses at Valentina Passalacqua’s father’s farms in Puglia, both in the Italian press and in an August 6th New York Times article by Eric Asimov, I thought over my experience both managing employees and hiring external labor teams–often made up of immigrant or migrant workers[1]–over the past two decades. What came to mind was paperwork: there was the CCNL, or “Contratto Collettivo Nazionale di Lavoro per gli operai agricoli,” a hundreds-of-pages-long national contract for agricultural workers that governs every aspect of employment in the wine sector; the employees’ individual contracts, timesheets and monthly and annual payroll reports; the certificates from medical check-ups and safety courses; the checklists of required clothing and equipment; the sub-contracting tenders and agreements. I remember, too, the six-figure labor line item that glared at me whenever I opened the budget spreadsheet, and I remember worrying, day and night, about everyone’s safety in a sector where accidents are common and, occasionally, grave.

The Passalacqua story brought home that the complexity and reach of the thousands of laws, rules, codes and controls designed to protect agricultural workers, and the significant cost they represent for companies, coexist here with some bold and ingenious business owners determined to evade them. All over Italy employers and employees are investing millions of hours and euro in understanding and complying with encyclopaedic, labyrinthine labor laws while, at the same time, others (or sometimes the same people) are essentially keeping slaves.

The most frequent comment I heard in the wake of the scandal was, “That’s the South for you,”–a comment that is, of course, code for organised crime; it doesn’t happen here, in other words. But in the months since the article appeared, as I’ve spoken to immigrant and migrant workers, the labor contracting companies that employ them and the wine estates that rely on them for everything from planting vines to picking grapes, a more complicated picture has emerged of talented and dedicated migrants, immigrants and Italians working to improve the sector’s reputation and results, as well as of the forces working against them

Sherif Metalla has a lot in common with immigrant entrepreneurs everywhere. He came to Italy in the early 1990s and worked first as a farm hand, though he had been a mason in Albania, rising to the role of foreman after two years, and then to estate manager after seven. His wife and son worked with him, as did other Albanians who followed him to Italy from Durazzo, the town where he was born and raised. Later, he offered to manage the same activities for the estate as a contractor instead of an employee, and set out on his own. Today, at his company, Agriarte, he employs three hundred laborers, a handful of foreman and two office managers and boasts some of the most respected wineries in Italy as clients.

The sign at Agriarte’s headquarters.

Sherif’s company conducts agricultural operations year round, starting in January dry-pruning vineyards and finishing in December with the last of the olive harvest. He credits military service with instilling the discipline that even today gets him out of bed at 3 a.m. to send work crews off to estates as far away as the Veneto from his home in Tuscany. He sees himself as a father figure to his employees and believes the cornerstone of his success is the quality of their work. Rather than compete on price, he banks on quality and a reputation for “correttezza”–shorthand here for paying taxes (both corporate and payroll) and employing legal immigrants. “The estates I work for know that the police won’t bother checking up on my teams in the vineyards,” Sherif explains. “Everyone knows I do things by the book.”

Sherif invests in his employees via training and by furnishing them high-quality equipment: “the best pruning shears, the best shoes.” A look of disgust comes across his face as he tells me about a competitor who sent his squad to prune without gloves. He provides housing for his employees and sends them to and from their work sites in black Mercedes vans—a brush with comfort and luxury he is convinced is a powerful motivator.

Sherif admits that agriculture isn’t for everyone—the physical effort, the heat and cold, the long commute to many of the work sites. But, as with all company representatives I spoke with, Sherif rebuffs my questions about high employee turnover and emphasises, somewhat contradictorily, both that most of his employees have been with him for years, and that those who do leave move on to better jobs. He claims to have never fired an employee, but admits that non-Albanians have proven harder for him to manage, because of the difficulty he finds in teaching them the skills needed for the variety of vineyard and orchard operations without a common language. “Communication is key, “ he says, echoing contemporary CEOs touting the soft skills

Like other founders, Sherif worries about the transition to the next generation. “I hoed sunflowers all day for 80 lek” (about 75 cents), Sherif recalls. He repeats an Albanian saying, “The chicken eats pebbles, “ (apparently they do—it helps the muscles that make the eggshells): hardship produces results. “People here don’t realise what they have—liberty, the rule of law, the chance to succeed.” Of course, he has the good sense, as a foreigner operating a business in Italy, to flatter his adoptive home. Still, I come away from our meeting thinking about the positive role these companies play, both for Italy–agricultural laborers are needed and most Italians seem unwilling to go back to the fields–and for the employees, as a first step toward a better life.

At the estate I managed, our regular employees were engaged via typical agricultural-sector annual contracts that allow for up to 180 days of work per year. The contract is valid all year, but the employees work only when called on. If there was no work–such as was the case, say, in August–I didn’t call anyone in. During work-intensive periods, I called everyone. I made sure that no individual exceeded 180 days of work in a calendar year; otherwise, I would have had to offer that person a permanent contract–something my employer, like most agricultural companies, avoided. As I learned this fall, while researching this article, even the companies that assemble and hire out the squads use these same contracts to employ THEIR workers.

These contracts are advantageous for employers: the businesses pay only for hours worked, not fixed salaries (rare in Italian business); they can end the working relationship after a year (not necessarily possible with many types of Italian contracts); they can increase or decrease the size of the team to suit the season and its tasks. There are some advantages for the employees as well: under these contracts, they can still collect unemployment; they accumulate vacation and “TFR,” a bonus linked to length of employment; they are entitled to overtime wages if the hours per day or week exceed 8 and 39 respectively. Still, understandably, most employees would rather have a permanent contract that guarantees minimum monthly and yearly income and from which they can’t be fired. From a contractual point of view, my direct employees and the members of the squads I hired enjoyed the same status.

When I first started outsourcing work to squads, I was nervous. Labor law infringements are penal not civil crimes in Italy, and, as of 2018, the contractor is also responsible for the contractee’s compliance. I had the contract I intended to use reviewed and updated by a local labor lawyer; I verified the contractee’s “DURC,” a document that proves the supplier is up to date with taxes, and I looked over the pages-long list of its employees for discrepancies, although to be honest I didn’t know what I was looking for. Per the security code, I arranged for the contractee to sign his team in and out each day. (Harvest season is fire season, so it’s essential to know who’s on your property at all times.) Mostly, though, I just hoped the company I had hired was a responsible one: I didn’t really know how to verify its legitimacy. I could not check every worker’s immigration visa, could I? I would not have known how to spot a false one anyway, I told myself.

Andrea, a Tecnovite co-owner, claims that low prices are a red flag for unfair labor practices. He urges estates to look skeptically at bids more than 30% lower than typical rates. Another friend, Samuele, says it’s not that simple. He has worked in the wine sector all his life, currently as an area manager for a company that provides squads, and he points out that speed and quality are not inversely related. It is possible, he insists, to be good and fast. In fact, that’s the only way to make money: wine estates contract out for work at a price agreed per hectare (roughly 2.2 acres) or per plant in some cases; the employees of the contractee, on the other hand, are paid by the hour. Speed generates profit. Companies have every interest in training their employees for maximum efficiency.

Talking with Samuele, I learned what I could have done to verify that my supplier was complying with labor laws. It turns out that the “DURC” is almost meaningless. One can set up a company, pay that month’s payroll and corporate taxes, obtain the “DURC” and move on. He urges estates to ask to see the payroll, to check which safety courses the employees have taken and to verify that everyone has had a recent medical exam

Samuele argues that it’s too easy to set up a company here and that entrepreneurs should be vetted before they can assemble squads and hire them out. He proposes a professional guild, such as those that exist for architects or lawyers, in which entrepreneurs must enroll and to which they must pay dues. This would scare off the charlatans, he feels. He also argues for more–and more thorough–surprise checks on the squads in the field and the companies that employ them.

I also learned some of the ways companies take advantage of their employees. They ask the crews to sign fewer hours than they actually work, pre-empting complaints by offering the job to “the guys who will clock eight hours to hoe two hectares, no matter how long it actually takes.” Or they pay all the hours worked, but collect cash fees for housing and food on payday. Sure, the employees would probably be spending part of their earnings on housing and food anyway, but some labor contractors make a margin on these essentials. The most blatant abusers show up in Italy with a string of mostly illegal migrant workers, set up a company, work the season, collect payments from the client estates and leave. These “pop-up” squads often manage to avoid taxes and labor regulations entirely, and are thereby able to work for far less than legitimate companies can. Interestingly, I’m told such squads are most popular where you’d least expect it—the areas known for high-priced wines.

During the harvest, at the estate I managed, I worried whether the company I had engaged would send me a team when I needed it, or favor some more famous estate and make me wait to pick. Would they send the dozen pickers they promised or fewer? Were the teams selecting the healthy bunches as I had instructed or were the rumors about unskilled external teams true?

Bouamama Zouhir of Tecnovite

Some days, with the internal team, I worked alongside the hired teams picking grapes, in what strikes me as a not-very-nuanced, typically American way of trying to motivate and inspire. It was 2017, temperatures neared 40° during the day, and for a few days, I even brought boxes of ice cream to the harvesting teams in the afternoon. But I soon noticed that the teams and foreman were different every day, and I stopped trying to train or inspire anyone. I felt powerless to impact the quality of the work, yet I still didn’t see a connection between the price I had paid per hectare and the relatively unresponsive teams and high turnover. Luckily, picking grapes is one of the easiest vineyard tasks, and we finished the harvest without problems. When we planned the budget for the following year, I let the viticulturalist choose which work to outsource and to whom, the only constraint being that he keep costs unchanged.

There is enormous pressure on wineries from importers, restaurants, wine shops and consumers to keep prices as low as possible. It is easy to recognise an Amazon-like zero sum game in which low prices benefit consumers and hurt workers, which in cases such as that of Passalacqua’s father, got taken to the extreme of “caporelato,” outright maltreatment and abuse of workers. The Passalacqua wines stood out exactly because their prices were significantly lower-than-average in the natural wine category. It may cost less to make wine in Puglia than it does in Tuscany, despite national wage laws, and Ms. Passalacqua may have simply capitalised on that and on the rarity of natural wines from Puglia to rise to prominence and popularity. Still, wineries and consumers will not ultimately be able to avoid the question of how to fairly and profitably balance the interests of all stakeholders.

The value of incremental quality in agriculture can seem marginal. What difference can a well-placed, well-angled cut to a young vine in February have on a bottle made from grapes harvested eight months later and drunk years afterward? And yet, Daro, Andrea, Sherif, Samuele, and the wineries that hire them, believe in it. In a sector as competitive as Tuscan wine, they have all staked their livelihoods on the cumulative impact of well-trained, well-equipped, motivated employees on vineyard, vine, grape and ultimately wine quality, and on consumers recognising its value.

[1] Migrant workers, typically from Eastern Europe or Africa, come to Italy on a temporary, maximum-nine-months visa. Immigrants move to Italy permanently obtaining either longer-term visas or citizenship. The labor teams are a gateway for migrant workers to immigrate to Italy, not least because their managers can help navigate the immigration bureaucracy.

Exposure

At the end of May, I could finally go back to my friend’s winery, where I am keeping the tanks and barrels of the 2019 wines I made. For almost three months, I had been confined to my home, leaving only for groceries every few days. Once, in April, I had risked a contravention and driven to the winery to check for major problems—a leaky tank seal or barrel, say. Now I was going back to taste each lot, worried about finding them reduced, or, on the contrary, oxidised.

After the first twenty or thirty minutes of moving around the cellar, something felt strangely familiar. I had walked in and changed into rubber boots and an apron, to keep my feet dry and jeans clean from spattered must—acidic stains that are virtually impossible to remove. I had unsealed the tank covers and lifted them off the wine, being careful not to let the dust that had accumulated on top fall into the tank. I had rinsed a bucket, pitcher and glass and opened a valve on the first tank, catching some wine, tasting it and spitting it outside on the gravel. I had noted my impressions in my booklet. Then I had rinsed the valve and moved to the next tank. I had tasted the wine in each barrel, too, removing the rubber plug, dipping the wine thief in (a long, glass pipette) and sluicing the wine into my glass. Before closing the barrel, I had wiped its mouth and rinsed and replaced the plug, sometimes after topping up with some tank wine so that the surface area of wine fully exposed to oxygen within the barrel remained at a minimum.

While doing all of this, I was acutely aware of the air—of how much of the wine was exposed to the air for how long. Barrels give wine oxygen—slowly and gently. Sealed tanks, on the other hand, shouldn’t permit any oxygen to reach the wine. When tasting, I was looking for even a slight note of oxidation—a hint of a sherry or madeira smell or taste that would suggest the young wines had evolved too fast, drunk—as it were—to much oxygen. At the same time, I was testing for reduction, looking for the odors associated with too little access to oxygen, or more precisely, too much exposure to the wine’s own dead or dying yeasts.

I was aware, also, of bacteria, with which the cellar and the wines are of course full, especially right after the harvest, when the musts are torrid and rich. By now, the wines had clarified significantly and the lab results had come back “clean” of bacteria, which simply meant their amounts were below the perception threshold. But they are there, living and breeding, and it was to be my job for the next few months to nurture the wines toward a stable equilibrium, one that would keep the bacteria levels low forever, keep the wine from turning to vinegar and yet still let its tannins slowly polymerize, its texture grow smoother, its complexity multiply.

Consciousness of the air as necessary but possibly dangerous, of bacteria on things or in liquids, is a version of heightened sensitivity that I usually feel only in the cellar. The other day, though, I realised that since the Coronavirus crisis, we have all begun to think about what we can’t see—in the air, on surfaces, in liquids. We question what before we had implicitly trusted.

I was full of trepidation going back to the cellar after so many weeks away. The wines tasted unfamiliar to me; they had continued their evolution, developing aromas and flavors and textures of nine-month old wines—no longer newborns. It took a few cellar visits and tastings to get to know them in their new state, to trust them again, to remind myself of their qualities and limits.

There was much talk during lockdown of the post-COVID world, of how different it would be, and of how it would be different. We would not go out to eat, people said, and kissed greetings were over. But now that Italy has mostly re-opened, things have gone pretty much back to the way they were. For the first few days, no one shook hands, restaurants were empty, meetings continued online. Now, more than a month into re-opening, we’ve gone back to hugging our friends, and the local pizza place is full. We trust one another again, or better or worse.

Quarantena

Quarantine in Tuscany—like quarantine in the countryside elsewhere, I imagine—is not that bad, especially given the fine weather that March 2020 is giving us. My yard has never looked better: the roses are pruned and tied and sprayed with copper; the vegetable garden is sprouting fava beans, peas and Swiss chard; my older daughter, home from university in Milan, is keeping the lawn mowed short. The same is true for the house. A few days of cold weather last week gave me ample time for the chores that get postponed during the high-speed train ride that is the usual winter school-work-socialising rhythm. The girls are relaxed: the middle-schooler and the college junior follow on-line lessons: the former stays in her pjs and nibbles on Nutella cookies while participating in class chats led by her teachers; the latter sits in the sun in her bikini with her laptop watching lectures conducted by her professors from their homes up north. They both miss their friends, and I miss my parents and sister: online socialising quickly wears thin. But my daughters are here, a situation that became instantly twice as precious the day the older one left for college two years ago. So I confess, over the basso continuo of a Puritan sense of guilt at not striving for more, I love these days.

And yet. “M, 66, Pistoia; M, 89, Barberino; F, 100, Chiusi; M, 58, Livorno…” and so on through yesterday’s 16 Tuscan victims read La Nazione Siena this morning. I thought of all the grandparents that gather outside my daughter’s school at pick-up time, of how they arrive early and wait proudly, of how their grandchildren slip comfortably into their care. I thought of the old men talking on Piazza della Posta near the tractor or two displayed at the Wednesday morning market, giving opinions and recommendations regarding the growing season, the-all-important topic in a community that is still tied to agriculture. I thought of childless Sig. Barnetti who has lived and worked on a friend’s estate for 67 years, who speaks of my friend as of a son, though more indulgently, I suspect, and who often claims, teasingly, that the estate without him will fail. I thought of our local hairdresser, who recently celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the opening of her salon, and of her mostly-older customers on their weekly visits for a wash and set, of their combined knowledge of our town and of its inhabitants—whole family histories, witnessed in decades of bits of small talk. I thought of Sig.ra Panini, who taught me to make migliacci the first winter I lived in Tuscany, of Zia Gina, who showed me how to use the old foot-pump sewing machine to mend horse blankets and saddle pads, of my daughter’s grandmother singing “Ninna nanna ninna oh, questa bimba a chi la do?” while she rocked my baby to sleep. I thought of all the people, sick or dying alone, of their terrified and grief-stricken families, and finally of Italy itself—poor Italy—what did she do to deserve this, other than open her arms and let the whole world in?

A recording of a Sienese man singing his city’s anthem, Mentre Siena Dorme, went viral last week, even making it into a CNN report on Italians’ response to the crisis. As I listened, the sole male voice intoning the notes of the anthem, confined to three of four different, close pitches, reminded me of Medieval plainchant, and the acoustics of the empty stone street pictured in the video echoed those of the province’s churches. I was humbled by what I seemed to hear in that voice: a deep awareness of the tragedy around us, combined with a cruelly ironic consciousness that the world can dole out much worse, and therefore, a stoicism, a resistance to being too moved by events of the present day.