Workers report abuses in Italy

By Christine Spolar
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published November 12, 2006

BARI, Italy — The sole moment of thanksgiving after a bitter harvest for farmworker Jakub Olszewski came when police swarmed the labor camp where he worked. He and dozens of other Poles were suddenly set free, rescued from what police, prosecutors and members of the European Parliament are calling an episode of modern-day slavery in Italy.

Olszewski and other migrant workers had paid as much as $400 for bus rides from Warsaw to the lush Italian countryside. But then they were essentially kept for weeks by an organized gang, without pay and only infrequent meals of bread and water during this summer’s tomato harvest, police charge.

The Polish workers were among thousands apparently caught in what police are calling a deadly transborder crime web run by Poles, Italians and Ukrainians that was aimed at supplying cheap labor for one of Europe’s most agriculturally blessed regions. One Pole died at the camps; at least 13 people are missing under what police are calling suspicious circumstances.

Such worker abuse has grown dramatically in the last three years in Italy, Spain and other Western European agricultural belts as borders have opened and barriers have dropped, officials say.

As police interview more than 600 Poles who once worked in this region known as Puglia, authorities fear that such labor practices continue, hidden in Italy’s hills and valleys, as harvests of olives and oranges are brought in.

“We were all afraid there,” said Olszewski, 21, a thin one-time firefighter in Poland who now lives and works on farmland in the nearby village of Castellana Grotte on the Adriatic coast. “Everything was filthy and the people in charge looked like criminals.

“They had tattoos over all parts of their bodies–even their eyelids,” he said, switching between Polish, Italian and a bit of English to ensure his story was understood. “And if people didn’t work, they were beaten.”

Analysts and investigators say the abuses grew out of an already shadowy labor market that was tolerated and encouraged over the past decade as farmers in Europe cut corners to fend off global competition–even trying to undercut the price of tomatoes shipped in from China.

Migrant laborers have always been vulnerable to the greed of some landowners. But the Italian example stands out, lawmakers and human-rights advocates said, for how European standards of labor and decency were flouted.

“These [farmworkers] were basically used as slave labor–and in places where farm owners pull down EU subsidies,” said Stephen Hughes, a European Parliament member from Britain who has tracked the labor violations. “But it’s not just a problem in Italy. There is a two-tier labor system emerging throughout Europe. The question is what to do about it.”

Need for cheap labor

Until 10 years ago, Italians still worked the fields of their native land. Since 2000, as competition increased, landowners pushed wages so low that immigrants from Africa and more recently Poland and Bulgaria now fill the ranks of those willing to work so hard for so little.

Contract workers in southern Italy earn about $1,500 a month for daily and often non-stop field work, if they are lucky. Many others–and particularly the Polish workers–earn far less.

Polish workers were lured to Italy through newspaper ads in Warsaw and a Polish Web site that promised well-paying contracts. They were told they would live in houses with heating and lights and earn up to $8 an hour.

But when they arrived in rural Italy, they learned that they would earn no more than $4 a day. They subsisted on whatever food they carried from Poland and then meager supplies of bread and water left at the camps, according to written statements submitted to police.

Investigators said the Poles were subject to the whims of men who managed the camps–people not clearly employed by the landowners. Those men, Poles and Ukrainians themselves, housed the workers miles from the farms. The Poles slept in abandoned buildings or in open fields. None ever saw a full day’s wage. Women told police that the middlemen often tried to force them into prostitution.

Police also have evidence that the migrant workers were charged for any small comfort they had in Italy. Middlemen siphoned money from their promised wages to pay for water and electricity use at the dilapidated camp, the Poles told police.

Those who tried to argue with the camp managers–or, in some cases, slept exhausted through the 4 a.m. work call–were often docked more money or beaten, authorities said. One camp worker was found burned to death this summer, with his passport left on his chest.

During the nighttime raid, investigators snapped photographs of the camp. People were sleeping in tents, in abandoned buildings, on cots and even underneath the cots. The grounds were littered with trash and human waste. No one was chained inside the camp, police said, but the Poles essentially were stranded in the Italian countryside with no money and no Italian language skills to maneuver their way home.

“The landowners said they basically knew nothing,” said Domenico Ruscigno, an investigator on the 15-member national police task force. “But they knew they were contracting workers some way. It was a smart way for them to keep out of it and get their harvest done.”

Difficult to link landowners

After police raided Olszewski’s labor camp on July 18, 27 people–including drivers and middlemen–were arrested on charges of human trafficking and “reducing people to human slavery.” Cases were opened by both Italian and Polish prosecutors in a joint investigation also involving Europol investigators.

One Italian landowner was charged, but he was later released for lack of evidence tying him to the work camps.

Landowners whose crops were harvested did not own the land where the workers lived, police said. No documents have linked the landowners to either the drivers who ferried the Polish workers to Italy or the middlemen who ruled the camps.

Investigators have yet to find a clear Italian Mafia connection to the racket. Instead, the labor scam appears to be a criminal operation by opportunists who saw the Poles as hard workers and easy prey.

“This was a business, and it’s organized crime, but not the Mafia,” Ruscigno said. “Who has the interest, really? The Mafia is interested in drugs, graft and corruption–and this isn’t big enough money for them. But the landowners need workers.”

Originally it was a landowner, Domenico Centrone, who brought attention to the beleaguered Poles’ plight and tried to help them. A well-established vegetable exporter here, he has long traded with Polish farmers. Since the fall of communism in Poland, he has acted as a local consul in the south, appointed by the Polish Embassy in Rome to encourage trade and good relations.

In 2004, Centrone began hearing from frightened Poles who fled work camps north of Bari. Two teenage girls showed up at the consulate, claiming they were nearly forced into prostitution by camp managers. He alerted the Polish Embassy in Rome and police in the city of Foggia, near the farms.

During months of inquiries, Foggia police repeatedly told Centrone that the Poles lacked credibility. In 2005 Centrone, armed with a stack of witness statements that he collected on his own, turned to authorities in Bari and nearby Putignano.

National police were quickly alerted. Wiretaps and surveillance by Italian and Polish authorities found evidence of human trafficking. Poles were among the most affected,
but Romanians, Bulgarians and Sudanese also were among the mistreated, authorities found.

As the arrests were publicized, the European Parliament froze farm subsidies to at least one Italian firm linked to unfair labor practices. Lawmakers in Italy are scrambling to strengthen labor laws to avoid a permanent loss of millions of dollars in European Union funds.

“Sure, there are people who blame me,” Centrone said in a recent interview near the small consul office he maintains. “But this also became personal for me. We are landowners too. We always had land but we never abused people like this.”

Victims accuse police

Asked why Foggia police ignored his complaints, Centrone pointed to witness statements from some Poles. Several said they sought police help but were frightened by the familiar faces they encountered inside the Foggia police station.

Some Foggia police patrolled camps and fields where they worked, the Poles said in written statements. Those police, the Poles alleged, were on a first-name basis with the people who ran the labor camps. Some even left with boxes of tomatoes.

Polish authorities in Rome said the government has tried to warn its citizens, but needy workers still flow into Italy, although on a smaller scale.

“It’s not just Poles. There are Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians,” said Artur Soroko, an embassy spokesman. “Unfortunately, there are still Poles willing to take the chance.”

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cspolar@tribune.com