The pair were taken into custody over claims that they had paid their farm labour according to their skin colour. The two brothers face charges of labour exploitation aggravated by racial discrimination.
The farm owners hired immigrants to work illegally on their farm in Amantea in Cosenza province, according to investigators.
Some five to eight people would be contracted to work on the farm daily, mostly migrants from Africa, India, and Romania, all of whom were paid wages lower than the legally required rate.
While workers with white skins were paid €35 per day, the black farm workers received only $25.
Investigators also accused the pair of subjecting the workers to degrading conditions, including sleeping in huts without tables and chairs to take their meals. They maintain that the workers were regularly threatened by the two brothers.
Police have confiscated the brother’s assets of approximately €2 million. The pair aged 41 and 48 have been placed under house arrest.
A daily rate of around €30 for a 10-12 hour day in wages paid was reportedly the norm. It is less than half the legal minimum set in Italy. In reality, many workers frequently earn less because labour brokers charge them for transport.
Under the so-called caporalato system, fruit pickers and other seasonal workers are typically recruited, organised and paid by an intermediary, a labour broker, enabling the actual employers to avoid paying payroll taxes.
Last autumn, the Italian parliament introduced a law cracking down on agricultural concerns exploiting migrant workers – a widespread problem in the southern parts of the country they say. Activists have pushed for stricter regulation of the sector following the death of Paola Clemente, a 49-year-old farm labourer. She collapsed from apparent exhaustion and later died while working in a vineyard near Andria in Puglia.
Trade unions said at the time that 430 000 agricultural workers were subject to extreme exploitation across the country, due to the recent mass arrivals of migrants.
Italy’s Agricultural Minister Maurizio Martina condemned the brothers and said their imposed apartheid was “intolerable in every respect”. She added that Friday’s arrests proved the necessity of a law passed last year to limit the exploitation of farm workers, who are often immigrants.
“Cases such as this once again demonstrate how necessary our law is in order to protect the dignity and rights of workers,” said Martina.