Professor Alessandra Sciurba from the University of Palermo
co-wrote a report in 2015 that documented the abuse that Romanian women in Sicily were facing. She says conditions are worse now.
The women are telling us they need to migrate to try to ensure their children are not living in complete poverty in Romania, but that they themselves are being forced to endure terrible conditions and abuse as a result, she says. There is no other work, the women told us, so in order to provice for their families they felt they had to accept this deal. It is a conscious choice they are having to make. What we witnessed is nothing less than forced labour and trafficking as defined by the United Nations International Labour Organisation.
Prosecutor Valentina Botti is pursuing multiple charges of sexual assault and labour exploitation against farmers. She says that the abuse of Romanian women is a huge phenomenon.
Kidnapping, sexual assault and keeping people in slavery are three major crimes we have detailed in our investigations to date, she says.
We are talking about potentially thousands of Romanian women as victims of serious abuse. Very few women are coming forward with their stories. Most accept the abuse as the personal sacrifice they must make if they want to keep their jobs. The implication of losing work for many of them is devastating.
Eliza, a 45-year-old Romanian women, told the
Observer that she felt she had no choice when her new employer pulled her into a shed on her first day at work.
I tried to run away but he told me clearly that if I did not do this I would have to leave, she says. It had been months that I had been out of work. I realised that if I wanted to stay in
Italy I had to accept this.
The huge rise in the number of Romanian women seeking abortions in Sicily is also alarming medical professionals and human rights groups. According to Proxyma, while Romanian women make up only 4% of the female population of Ragusa province, they account for 20% of registered abortions.
The numbers of abortions among Romanian women is very alarming, says Ausilia Cosentini, coordinator of the Fari project, which provides assistance for Romanian women at a clinic. She says that many of the women coming to seek abortions were accompanied by their employers or other Italian men. While you clearly cant conclude that all these pregnancies are the result of sexual violence or fear of losing their work, the high number of abortions in relation to the few thousand Romanian women in the province has to be taken very seriously.
Working conditions are in some cases highly dangerous. One young Romanian woman told us that she became sick when she was forced to handle and work with agricultural chemicals without protective clothing. I had to handle foods covered in pesticides and it made me really sick. I was coughing and I couldnt breathe, she says.
I was pregnant and I started to feel sick and then I gave birth to my baby when I was only five months pregnant. The doctors said she was premature because of the work and that she is probably going to have brain damage because of the chemicals.
Those who did report their abuse to the authorities said they then often found themselves unable to find work elsewhere.
I worked with my husband in the greenhouses and the owner wanted to sleep with me, says Gloria, 48. I refused and he fired me. I reported him to the police but since then I cant find a job. The other farm owners know I went to the police and they dont want me to work for them.
Eventually, Nicoleta Boloss nightly ordeals proved too much. She fled the farm and her husband but was left without work and unable to send money home to her two young children in Romania. By the time her friends had raised enough money for her bus ticket home, she had lost legal custody of both children. They are now living with her ex-husbands uncle and she has not been allowed any contact since. Yet despite the abuse, she returned to work in Ragusa, taking the 50-hour bus journey from Botosani, in Romania, back to Sicily and the greenhouses.
Local economy survives on migrant labour
Opportunities for casual farm work in Ragusa are abundant. In recent years, Italian exports of fresh fruit and vegetables have grown and are now worth some 366m a year. Much of this produce is grown in the 5,000 farms across Ragusa province.
Italian agriculture has for many years been heavily reliant on migrant labour. One farming group, Coldiretti, estimates that about 120,000 migrants are working in the sector in southern Italy.
After years of damaging allegations of exploitation and a resulting clampdown by the Italian government, Sicilian farmers who once filled their greenhouses with undocumented migrants and refugees arriving by boat have turned to migrant workers from within the EU.
The number of Romanian women travelling to work in Sicily has increased hugely over the past decade. According to official figures, only 36 Romanian women were working in Ragusa province in 2006, rising to more than 5,000 this year. Romanians overtook Tunisians this year as the largest group working in Ragusas fields.
Greenhouse owners are now afraid of being prosecuted for facilitating illegal migration by hiring undocumented migrants, says Giuseppe Scifo, a union leader for CGIL, Italys largest union. So the new targets for exploitation are EU citizens, who are willing to accept low wages because of the desperate situation in their home countries.
Gianfranco Cunsolo, president of Coldiretti in Ragusa, says he has no choice but to pay low wages.
The exploitation of workers in Ragusa is also the consequence of EU policies, he says. I dont want to justify the actions of farmers and greenhouse owners who pay low wages to migrant workers, but these people often dont feel they have any alternative if they are to compete with other European markets.
When it comes to sexual abuse of women workers, there is obviously no excuse for that. The people doing this need to be arrested and jailed. Women are welcome to work here in Ragusa and must be treated equally. We completely condemn this.
Under Italian law, farm owners must provide seasonal workers with official contracts and a daily wage of 56 for an eight-hour day. Yet Romanian women arriving in Sicily often find a more brutal reality.
Romanian women are paid three times less than the wage required by law, and most of them dont have legal contracts, says Scifo. Many of the women interviewed by the
Observer say they are rarely paid more than 20 a day.
Yet there is little political or economic incentive for the authorities to take action and end the abuse. Although the police say they have dozens of open cases and ongoing prosecutions, only one farmer has so far been charged and convicted of abusing Romanian women.
The problem is the farmers are not rich men, says Scifo. If the owners paid their workers legal wages, they would lose too much money and the entire agricultural economy of the province would implode. This is why the authorities look the other way and why it is so hard to get anyone to take action to stop this.
Nicoleta Bolos and family in their accommodation inside one of the warehouses on the farm.
Attempts to raise the issue in the Italian parliament have floundered. In 2015, MP Marisa Nicchi launched a parliamentary inquiry into slavery among Romanian workers in Ragusa and asked the prime minister to launch an investigation.
Two years on and the Italian government has yet to take any action, she says from her parliamentary office in Rome. But we will not give up. These crimes must stop.
In Ragusa, local politicians say that they are trying to provide services to Romanian workers facing abuse. Giovanni Moscato, who last June became mayor of Vittoria, a town in the west of Ragusa province, said the exploitation was persisting because too many economic interests were being served at present, but that the city was opening a hostel to shelter Romanian women fleeing violent employers.
Since returning to Italy, Nicoleta Bolos has met a Romanian man and had two other children. She reported her previous employer to the police, and the man was charged with labour exploitation but his case has yet to come to trial.
Now, she says, she is sick of the abuse. She has decided to go public with her story in an attempt to get justice for herself and other Romanian women caught in a web of exploitation and impunity. Holding her baby and sitting on a cracked plastic chair, she gestures at their home. The walls are wet with damp and there is no heating or running water.
Look at how we live. But this is our life here. I am not going to lose my children again. They are the reason that I have lived through this, why Ive become a slave, she says. It was for them that I had to let that man into my bed every night. Now I want people to know that this is happening and that it must stop.
Some names have been changed to protect identities
The work in the greenhouses is hard, badly paid and mostly with no contract. Photograph: Francesca Commissari for the Observer