Whatever they will do to us, they are nothing: Romanian exploitation in Sicily

Sicily: the port of entry to continental Europe from the Mediterranean. What many people do not know is what happens in the Sicilian countryside, where thousands of migrants work in agriculture, in particular in the fruit and vegetables industry. Part of what you find in the supermarkets and grocery stores might be produced in this areas, especially because of the favorable climate all year round.

Here many people, principally women, come from the poorest areas of Eastern Europe to work in the greenhouses of southern Sicily, to produce out of season groceries that will then be sold all around the country. The majority of these women are young mothers, coming from Romania with their young kids and sometimes with their partners to find a better opportunity, some more money to support the family. They do not know what they will be facing once they are hired by their “padrone”.

Many cases have been reported in the province of Ragusa, where the majority of these agricultural establishments are settled. The mayor of Vittoria, Mr Nicosia, stated that there are around three thousands companies controlling the groceries’ market in the area, and most of the workers are immigrants.
It is not easy to quantify the number of people employed in this area. There is a lack of official data, and this difficulty is also acted by the fact that many of these migrants are employed irregularly.

Working in the countryside in such conditions is with no doubt considered part of the category of “dirty, dangerous, demeaning and demanding jobs”, which are for the most part, if not entirely, taken by migrant labourers, who work up to twelve hours a day under the burning sun in the summer, and the cold wind in winter, as well as being exposed to pesticides and other hazardous and polluting substances very harmful for their health.

The salary depends on the nationality of the workers. Tunisians, being the oldest foreign settlement in the area, are those who earn the most, and many of them even became landowners and take advantage of other migrants. Others decided to leave the area, leaving their demeaning jobs to Romanians, who are willing to work for a lower wage and in bad conditions.
Since 2007, when Romania joined the EU, Romanians started to be employed in this sector, as employers no longer risk of incurring the crime of  facilitation of illegal migration. Paradoxically, having acquired the EU citizenship, has made these people more easily exploitable within a production system that usually sees them as the last link of the chain in which Italians and Tunisians come before them.

Women are the most welcomed, no matter their age and if they are married or not. They choose to work in this sector because they can bring their children over and live with them. The alternative for these women is to be a live-in caregiver, but that does not allow them to bring their family over.
A local priest said: “The arrival of these women from Eastern Europe has disrupted the agricultural scene in Sicily, where the owner’s wife stays home and rarely works in the countryside. This female presence has initially aroused curiosity and later became a real social failure. They began to say that the owners had “rediscovered the pleasures of the countryside” as they were coming home later and later in the evenings. Many families got into difficulties.”

What happens to these women is that to get a job in the greenhouses and be assured a miserable pay, they have to accept to be the subject of the sexual pleasures of their employers, the corporals, and their “colleagues”. These atrocities are proved by the fact that the province of Ragusa, in particular the city of Vittoria, has become the place with the highest percentage of abortions in Italy. This increase in the number of abortions has coincided with the increase of the Romanian female population in the territory.

There are literally “sex parties” in the countryside, in isolated areas surrounded by fences and razor wire with ferocious guard dogs to prevent any approach by strangers. Here you can find real sex parties in which the owners and employers share their female employees with friends and acquaintances. The parties are widespread especially in small family farms, because the big companies are more controlled. They take place between the greenhouses, or in isolated farmhouses, or even in rarely visited disco-bars, sometimes. The girls involved are young Romanian workers who are often 20-24 years old. Sometimes you can also find the daughters of the employees to whom the owner rents the farm. Every so often happens that they are exploited by the children of the owners. Once you get into this round is difficult to get out. There is no strong network of families and friends to support these women and there are no ties of solidarity between workers, because of the segregation these women are forced into, the competition triggered by employers, and the desperation these women experience.

A local doctor who works with this kind of cases said that the Romanian women always go to the doctor accompanied by men, who is most of the time their Italian or Tunisian (and in some cases Albanian) employer. They are often young girls, and they rarely speak. The men speak for them while they stare at the floor. The men say to be friends or acquaintances and never leave them alone with the doctor. All these women work in the greenhouses, and a very small percentage of them are caregivers who slept with the person they care for to get a supplement in their already poor income.
A service called “Solidal Transfert” has been created to allow these workers to go to the city center for simple things such as going grocery shopping or buying a phone card, but it was also created to try and put them in touch with the local volunteering organizations which are attempting to prevent this issue.

Many of these women have children who follow them in their new location, which, most of the time is a dirty room with no heating. Many employers even charge a rent rate for such places, which have been considered by volunteers who visited the areas as really primitive and unlikely to be found in the poorest country of the world.
They accept these conditions to be able to live with their children and sometimes with their husbands. Women with a husband are considered “more fortunate”, but it is not always like this. The “padrones” take advantage of their situation, threatening the women if they do not satisfy their sexual needs. Children are the principal subject of these threats: employers offer the women to take their kids to school, or to allow them to live with them for something else in return.

It is not easy to establish the boundary between sexual and psychological violence leading these women to bow to any form of exploitation. As it is also difficult to determine, at the moment, the existence of a real trafficking that, if verified, could lead to the imputation of dozens of employers and corporals active in the territory. A table with the Prefecture has been requested to explain the problem and discuss the data that many people working with organizations or independently have collected, while the local priest who reported the situations of which he personally heard of found himself isolated in his own city. The typical silence of this culture seems to be favoured by the fact that everything happens far away from public places and does not apparently interfere with the normal slow life of the province. Unlike the girls forced into prostitution in the street, what happens to the Romanian women remains invisible to those who do not want to see.

Despite all, these Romanian women keep saying “whatever they will do to us, they are nothing“.

Source: Articles on national and local newspapers, research “Effetto Serra: Le donne rumene nelle campagne del ragusano” by Alessandra Sciurba.


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