A picture showing grape plantations in a vineyard
  A vineyard during the off season in San Giorgio Ionico, Italy. The death of a worker at a vineyard in southern Italy led to an investigation of what has been termed a system of modern-day slavery. Photo credit: Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times.

A Woman’s Death Sorting Grapes Exposes Italy’s ‘Slavery’

Article in The New York Times
11 avril 2017

“Her husband can still recall how Paola Clemente used to set two alarms to make sure she woke in the middle of the night — 1:50 a.m. — to catch the private bus that would take her and dozens of other women to the vineyards.

There, she would pick and sort table grapes up to 12 hours, taking home as little as 27 euros a day, about $29, after middlemen skimmed her pay. Sometimes she was so exhausted, she fell asleep in the midst of conversation.

Her death of a heart attack at 49 in the fields has set off nearly two years of soul-searching in Italy over what the authorities, labor experts and union organizers described as an elaborate system of modern-day slavery — involving more than 40,000 Italian women, as well as migrant and seasonal laborers — that remains at the core of Italy’s agricultural economy, especially here at the country’s jagged heel.

After months of investigation, this year the authorities arrested six people, accusing them of using their recruiting and transportation agencies to extort wages from women so poor and desperate they dared not speak up and worked under extreme conditions.”

A cynic might ask whether this story is newsworthy only because the victim is Italian, and not a migrant worker.

Many poor and marginalised citizens and low-wage migrant workers are employed in the underground labour markets that Global North States have allowed to flourish in certain economic sectors that have low profit margins and cannot be delocalised, such as, depending on the country, agriculture, construction, hospitality, care, fisheries and extraction.

I have met agricultural workers in southern Italy working ten-hour days in fields in the summer for €20, and that’s when the recruiter doesn’t “forget” to pay them. Domestic workers around the world often work 17-hour days six days a week for a pittance. This pliable workforce occupies the socioeconomic slot once occupied by the slaves of yesteryear and by industrial workers at the end of the 19th century.

One must understand the dynamics at work. A considerable number of employers are actually calling for more exploitable migrants to come and migrants are responding to the opportunities of such underground labour markets. Migrants would not come if it were not for such possibilities. And only few citizens still accept such work conditions. As Paola’s husband aptly said : “The difference between how my wife worked and how migrants work is that Italians make more money, and the fact that we have a house to sleep in.”

Unfortunately, the domestic framework on labour law is most often incapable of regulating such underground labour markets and the implementation mechanisms are inadequate : unionisation is rare and actively discouraged, and labour inspections are inefficient, if not geared towards catching “illegal aliens”. Exploitation is rife and workers are too often subjected to intimidation, abuse and violence. Yet workers in such a precarious condition often consider that the risk of exploitation is worth taking if it gives them the opportunity to set foot in a country where they hope to move upwards on the social scale.

While the relationship between undocumented migration status and labour market abuses is complex, the former will tend to increase the vulnerability to the latter. Undocumented workers, constrained by circumstances, will perform tasks at great financial, physical and psychological cost. Little attention has been given to the impact of EU labour market dynamics on pull factors for undocumented migration and the suffering of undocumented migrant workers.

While the human rights implications of using precarious sea routes have been highly visible, the suffering experienced by undocumented migrant workers once they arrive in the European Union remains largely unseen. Indeed, migrant workers trying to survive in Europe often find themselves subject to racism and discrimination. Labour market-related abuse and xenophobia within the overall population are mutually reinforcing.

Should it take the death of an Italian citizen to bring this kind of exploitation to the headlines ?

To read the full article in the New York Times, please click here.

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