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Wine Slavery in Italy?
Italian wine comes at a price! After a grape picker’s death in Apulia, more than 40,000 women were discovered working in vineyards in conditions that have been described as “modern slavery”. Italian and immigrant women were preferred to men because of their small and quicker hands.
The grape picker was Paola Clemente aged 49, who died in the fields of a heart attack. After a long investigation on the Italian agriculture system, an elaborate organisation of modern-day slavery was discovered. It involved more than 40,000 Italian women, as well as migrant and seasonal labourers. Women are preferred to men because their thin fingers are better for picking and cleaning table grapes.
The constant threat of being replaced compelled Paola Clemente and her co-workers to overwork in spite of health conditions. Some women told the police that, despite the summer heat, they even tried to drink water only if strictly necessary, to avoid asking permission to relieve themselves.
Six people were arrested, accused of using their recruiting and transportation agencies to extort wages from the poor and desperate women who worked under extreme conditions.
In July 2015 Italy passed a law aimed at combating exploitation of agricultural workers. However, enslavement remains widespread and Italy is the second-worst state in the European Union for the exploitation of workers, the first being Poland.
The lack of work in Italy pushes people to accept unfair and degrading conditions and they do not report it, for fear of losing their jobs. Many women declared that their recruiters are benefactors and that they considered themselves “fortunate” to have the work, even in extreme conditions.
In many cases, as it was for Paola Clemente’s situation, farm owners regularly paid middlemen to pick up and transport her and the other women. Sometimes, the middlemen pocketed two-thirds of the women’s pay and deducted transportation costs. The hours taken to reach the fields, sometimes up to five hours, weren't included in the payment.
Moreover, mafia organisations are usually involved in the workers’ exploitation. This system impoverishes small farmers, enriches the large retailers and favours money laundering.
In Italy there are now harsh sanctions against employers who use underpaid labour and jail sentences for exploiting workers has raised to up to six years. Goods and companies can be seized by authorities. The proceeds go to a fund used to help the victims.
The problem which arises is that small companies are struggling to cope with the law’s strict new requirements in terms of health checks and equipment and this favours large producers.