Romania has agreed to collaborate with Italian authorities to stop abuses in a Sicilian province, after an Observer investigation found that thousands of Romanian agricultural workers were being used as forced labour and sexually exploited by their Italian employers. EURACTIV’s partner The Guardian reports.
A delegation of Romanian ministers sent by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu met provincial representatives and migrants’ rights organisations in the province of Ragusa on Friday (17 March) to discuss conditions for Romanian women and find a way forward.
“Undeclared work is a major risk that Romanian workers are exposed to, and the sexual exploitation is real,” said Andreea Pastarnac, minister for Romanians abroad, during the meeting. “Denouncing these abuses is an important step for the victims. But we also need to stop the abuses before they happen. To do so, we are going to collaborate with the Italian authorities.”
Hidden among fields of flapping white plastic tents across the province of Ragusa, some 5,000 Romanian women work as seasonal agricultural workers, harvesting crops in a province that is currently the third-largest producer of vegetables in Europe.
But the treatment of these workers is a growing human rights scandal, perpetrated with almost complete impunity. Migrant associations, authorities and unions estimate that more than half of all Romanian women working in the greenhouses are forced into sexual relations with their employers, and almost all of them work in conditions of forced labour and severe exploitation.
Yet many told the Observer they are too afraid to speak out, for fear of losing their jobs and being sent back home.
Neither government is certain just how many Romanian women are working in Ragusa, nor how many are suffering exploitation.
But Italian authorities describe the known level of abuse against these workers as unacceptable and have agreed an intervention plan is needed to support abuse victims, as well as to warn others of the risks they face in the province. A plan to build a refuge centre for victims is also being considered.
“We are trying to do our best but … there is a phenomenon of exploitation in our province,” said Maria Carmela Librizzi, the provincial official of the interior ministry, during the meeting.
“Driven by a dramatic economic situation back in Romania, women are afraid to report it. As for the illegal work, we did a lot of investigations and, yes, we did find a lot of illegal contracts.
“The first step is to help these women get out of the isolation they live in. We need to build a high-trust relationship with them. If they trust us, they are going to speak out and report the abuses.”
The government meeting between the two nations was hailed by some organisations as a potential milestone.
“The presence of a Romanian delegation is an important signal,” said Domenico Leggio, the local president of Caritas, a Catholic charity, who has tried for years to help Romanian women working in the region. “I hope something important can be done this time.”
But other migrants’ rights organisations in Ragusa were not optimistic. Beniamino Sacco, the Catholic priest who first denounced the sexual exploitation in Ragusa, was present at the meeting and told the Observer: “They always hold a meeting right after a story comes out, and the next day they pretend nothing has happened.
“I call the Romanian women here the invisible women,” Sacco continued. “For years, we have been denouncing these abuses and too little has been done. The very same Romanian authorities in the past have marked the issue as irrelevant, pretending it never happened.
“The Italian authorities have been waiting for the women to report the abuse to the police. Sometimes they have been attacking us when we try to release statistics. We can only estimate the full scope, and I can tell you it is a huge phenomenon. And this is only the tip of an iceberg.
“They don’t understand that these women are afraid. They are ashamed for what they have done. They feel guilty. It’s a physical as well as a psychological torture for them.
“I have met these women, I have seen them with my own eyes, women blackmailed to have sex with the owners of the farms and accepting [abuse] because they fear losing their jobs. I have seen Romanian women abandoning their children at the local hospitals because they knew they could lose their jobs or did not have money to feed them.
“Pregnant women come to me asking for help, and I can tell you they were not impregnated by the Holy Spirit. I hope both the authorities, the Italian and the Romanian ones, are going to do something. But I’m sceptical’’.
Giuseppe Scifo, a Ragusa union leader for CGIL, Italy’s largest union, agreed. “This is not the first time that, following a newspaper article that raises the abuses, authorities ask us for a meeting. It’s happened in the past and we are still here talking about these abuses and exploitation. We need a taskforce of inspectors in the field if we want to solve the problem.”
Tina Alfieri, president of the women’s work department for Coldiretti, one of the largest farming organisations in Italy, said: “Romanian women need to be supported in this fight. We need to convince them to speak out and report the owners to the police. And we can’t stand for these crimes. We really hope the Italian authorities are going to stop [abuse] as soon as possible.”