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Exploitation of Nigerian and West African Workers and Forced Labour in Italy: Main Features and Institutional Responses

Paola Monzini

Abstract: The chapter explores the labour exploitation of West African migrants in Italy and the institutional response of the authorities. Reconstructing two case studies: one in the agriculture sector located in Rosarno, Calabria and the other in the photovoltaic industry in Lecce, Apulia, the article distinguishes the passive vulnerability of the Rosano migrants set against the pro-active stance taken by the exploited migrants in Lecce, arguing that there is a need for consistent labour law strategies embedded in a broader framework, combined with a comprehensive approach based on the reduction of vulnerabilities and a ‘decent work’ approach.

Massey, Simon and Rino Coluccello. Eurafrican Migration: Legal, Economic and Social Responses to Irregular Migration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137391353.0007.


The opening years of the 21st century have witnessed the growing prevalence of labour exploitation. According to recent estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in 2005 the total amount of extremely exploited persons globally was 12.3m, while in 2012 the number was calculated at almost 21m persons: a proportion of three people in every thousand being extremely exploited. Among these, around 68 percent are exploited in labour markets, 22 percent in sex markets, and 10 percent are coercively exploited by the state, mainly as prisoners of war (ILO 2012). Although the total share of workers exploited in labour markets is high, and the problem of labour exploitation seems to loom large, it, nonetheless, often remains invisible at the public level. As the ILO reports, limited information is available, there is very little robust, factual evidence concerning labour exploitation and the knowledge gaps are wide. In European countries, the most interesting recent studies have been focussed on racial and ethnic discrimination in the labour markets and workplaces; on the exploitation of migrants and on the issue of migrant rights. Research highlights how new migrants, including seasonal and undocumented workers and refugees, are vulnerable to severe exploitation and unregulated working environments. Migrants without regular status and without contracts are particularly vulnerable to exploitation: long working hours; no rest days; confiscation of passports; non-payment of salaries and the sale of migrant workers from one employer to another are among the most frequent abuses of migrant rights (Van der Anker 2004; Moritz and Tsourdi 2009; Andrees and Besler 2009; Skrivankova 2010). In 2012, a comparative study conducted in nine European countries concluded that in Europe ‘forced labour is thought to largely involve non-citizens, who do not share the rights and freedoms of national citizens’ (Clark 2012: 58).

At the same time, in the last decade, a section of the scholarly literature has been devoted to exploring the experience of migrants moving from Africa to Europe, and the relationships between smugglers and the various kind of exploitation that irregular migrants encounter during their travels (Monzini 2010, 2012). The issue of migrants’ human rights has become central to this discourse on African migration and on irregular migration from African to European countries (De Haas 2008; Adepoju & Van der Wiel 2010). Research shows how irregular migrants may come in contact with an interconnected, transnational, informal network of, more or less, specialised middlemen who exploit them. Also, the flows of migration crossing the Mediterranean countries are ‘mixed migration flows, meaning that a varying, but relevant, percentage of migrants in this region comprises asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants, such as victims of trafficking and refugees (UNHCR 2006). In most cases these vulnerable categories tend to share the same migration processes as economic migrants, they undertake the same journeys and receive the same treatment, despite their divergent situations. Smuggled migrants who are deported can be, at the same time, trafficked persons and/or asylum seekers, and shifting from one category to another may also be common. More specifically, research in the Mediterranean region has demonstrated that African irregular migrants who are on the move may pass form one intermediary to another, often voluntarily, effectively becoming disposable people during their journey. Migrants along this route meet all the pre-conditions which Kevin Bales has identified as the foundations of the new forms of slavery (Bales 2009).

As in other parts of the Mediterranean, irregular migrants in Italy are often transit migrants. In the geography of irregular migration, Italy is not only a destination country, but also a transit country for West African migrants whose target destination lies elsewhere in Europe. In this context, an investigation of the exploitation of West African workers in Italy needs to take into account the shape of irregular labour markets, the interconnection with the irregular migration process and the measures adopted by the Italian state to control migration.

Against this background, the chapter explores the mechanisms of severe labour exploitation of Nigerian and other West African workers in Italy, mainly through the lens of the law enforcement approach. Exploitation in the Italian sex market is not considered in detail (for an analysis of the transportation/trafficking of Nigerian women to work as prostitutes in Italy, see Chapter 5). The main sources of evidence and data are interviews with the institutional actors involved in countering the phenomenon and judicial proceedings. First-hand information has been mainly gathered as part of a research project promoted by the ILO through 25 semi-structured interviews with law enforcement officials, mainly police officers and magistrates, in Italy’s southern and central- eastern regions, in the North East and in Rome, Turin, Milan and Naples, as well as through interviews with trade union officials working at the national or local level in Italy (ILO 2010). Twelve interviews were conducted face-to-face and 13 by telephone, using the ‘snowball sample technique.

Based on these sources, and on the information collected from secondary sources such as institutional and NGO reports, the first section briefly illustrates the main features of the exploitation of West African workers in Italy as understood by NGOs and experts on one side of the debate, and by law enforcement agencies on the other side. The second section reconstructs two different case studies involving exploited workers from Nigeria and other West African countries. At the end of the article, some concluding remarks are advanced with reference to the current European debate on migrant exploitation.

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