Nearly two years since a 49-year-old Italian woman died of a heart attack while picking and sorting table grapes, authorities have arrested six people for allegedly extorting and overworking women as part of an agricultural labor system that authorities and experts have compared to modern-day slavery.
Before her death in July 2015, Paola Clemente used to wake at 1:50 a.m. to catch a private bus to her job in the vineyards, receiving as little as $29 total for up to 12 hours of work each day. According to investigators, the middlemen paid by the farm owners to bus the women to work stole up to two-thirds of their pay, charged them for transportation, and didn’t credit them with work hours during bus trips up to five hours long.
Despite the horrendous conditions, investigators said, Clemente and others had remained silent about the abuses out of fear of losing their jobs.
“When we started interviewing Ms. Clemente’s colleagues, we faced a wall of silence,” said Nicola Altiero, provincial commander in Bari for Italy’s financial police. “We see this system as exploitation, but workers see it as a chance, an opportunity that they dread losing.”
Women would eventually tell police that they refrained from complaining — or even drinking water, so as to avoid having to ask permission to use the bathroom — in order to prevent themselves from being replaced. If a woman took even a single day off, they said, the bus would not come to pick her up again.
Last year, Italian legislators passed a bill increasing jail sentences for exploiting workers to up to six years and allowing damages to be paid to victims through funds seized from the company that exploited them. While authorities have praised the measure as much-needed progress, union organizers have warned that the absence of opportunities for poor rural workers means that many will continue to compete for jobs in which exploitation is the norm.
According to labor experts, more than 40,000 Italian women, in addition to migrant and seasonal workers, remain effectively entrapped in this modern system of slavery. Women are preferred for jobs such as grape picking because of their thinner and more dexterous fingers — according to Clemente’s husband of 27 years, Stefano Arcuri, his wife had been proud of her ability to remove even the tiniest grapes from the rest without leaving any marks.
At a ceremony dedicating a hall to Clemente at Italy’s Agriculture Ministry last month, Arcuri warned that conditions were even worse for migrant workers than they had been for his wife.
“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,” he said. “I trust justice. The truth will come out. And I do hope that the law that her death triggered will help migrants and Italians alike.”
Read the full story at The New York Times.