Raped, beaten, exploited: the 21st-century slavery propping up Sicilian farming

Nicoleta Bolos and her baby daughter in Ragusa province. Photograph: Francesca Commissari for the Observer

The only thing that she feared more than the sound of the farmer’s step outside her door was the threat of losing her job. So she endured night after night of rape and beatings while her husband drank himself into a stupor outside.

“The first time, it was my husband who said I had to do this. That the owner of the greenhouse where we had been given work wanted to sleep with me and if we refused he wouldn’t pay us and would send us off his land,” she says.

“I thought he was crazy, but when I refused, he beat me. He said I had to do everything our boss told us to do – it was the only way we could keep our work. When my employer came, he threatened me with a gun. He told me that if I moved he would blow my head off. When he finished he just walked away.”

The next morning Bolos was back at work, crouching beside her husband in a sweltering greenhouse, tending and harvesting the produce that has helped make Italy the biggest grower and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Europe. The province of Ragusa is the third-largest producer of vegetables in Europe.

During her time on the farm, Bolos says, workers were given scarcely habitable accommodation, fed cat food for their evening meal and were refused medical treatment. At night, Bolos and the other female Romanian workers became entertainment for the farmer and his friends, repeatedly raped and abused over many years.

“When I came here I thought I was coming to a hard but decent job in another European country, but we ended up as slaves,” she says.

A vulnerable female workforce

An Italian migrant rights organisation, the Proxyma Association, estimates that more than half of all Romanian women working in the greenhouses are forced into sexual relations with their employers. Almost all of them work in conditions of forced labour and severe exploitation.

Police say they believe that up to 7,500 women, the majority of whom are Romanian, are living in slavery on farms across the region. Guido Volpe, a commander in the carabinieri military police in Sicily, told the Observer that Ragusa was the centre of exploitation on the island.

“These women are working as slaves in the fields and we know they are blackmailed to have sex with the owners of the farms or greenhouses because of their psychological subjugation,” he says. “It is not easy to investigate or stop this from happening, as the women are mostly too afraid to speak out.”

Eliza, a 45-year-old Romanian women, told the Observer that she felt she had no choice when her new employer pulled her into a shed on her first day at work.

“I tried to run away but he told me clearly that if I did not do this I would have to leave,” she says. “It had been months that I had been out of work. I realised that if I wanted to stay in Italy I had to accept this.”

Attempts to raise the issue in the Italian parliament have floundered. In 2015, MP Marisa Nicchi launched a parliamentary inquiry into slavery among Romanian workers in Ragusa and asked the prime minister to launch an investigation.

“Two years on and the Italian government has yet to take any action,” she says from her parliamentary office in Rome. “But we will not give up. These crimes must stop.”

In Ragusa, local politicians say that they are trying to provide services to Romanian workers facing abuse. Giovanni Moscato, who last June became mayor of Vittoria, a town in the west of Ragusa province, said the exploitation was persisting because too many economic interests were being served at present, but that the city was opening a hostel to shelter Romanian women fleeing violent employers.

Since returning to Italy, Nicoleta Bolos has met a Romanian man and had two other children. She reported her previous employer to the police, and the man was charged with labour exploitation but his case has yet to come to trial.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

 

 

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