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The state of the debate: exploitation of West African migrant workers

In Italy, the most detailed research into severe labour exploitation has been conducted by non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations (Medici Senza Frontiere 2008; Amnesty International 2012) or trade unions (CIGL 2012); a few other studies present a scholarly perspective of the problem (Bussadori 2009; Carchedi 2010). Research has demonstrated that severe forms of exploitation are widespread in several areas of southern Italy (Pugliese et al. 2012) and in the North of the country, not only in agriculture, but also increasingly in the construction industry, mainly involving irregular migrants. The extent of exploitation is higher in areas with significant numbers of ‘black’ irregular migrants. In 2011, according to government data, there were almost 165,000 unregistered workers (Ministry of Labour and Social Policy 2012). On average, it has been calculated that irregular migrants receive 40 percent less in wages than Italian workers. Research in the areas of Caserta and Latina in Southern Italy has uncovered the prevalence of long working hours and the abuse of the migrants’ legal and social rights (IOM 2010; Amnesty International 2012; Pugliese et al. 2012).

There is some quantitative data concerning financial assistance paid by the state to those severely exploited in the workplace. Since 2007, migrants subjected to violence at the workplace have been able to receive financial assistance, a benefit initially only put in place for women exploited in the sex market.1 The number of migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa receiving financial assistance between

2002 and 2012 was as high as 13,200, although out of this number, 66 percent were women, mostly Nigerian and mainly exploited as part of their work as prostitutes. Men receiving payments were also mostly from Nigeria, and mainly exploited in labour markets such as agriculture and the construction industry, but also in illegal economies such as the drugs market, or in begging for the enrichment of others (Carchedi 2012). More recently, between 2010 and 2011, financial assistance was provided to a total of 997 trafficked people from the ECOWAS area, notably from Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana.

By law, severe exploitation becomes a criminal offence when the relationship between employer and worker not only gives raise to labour disputes, but breaches the fundamental rights of the worker concerned. Such violations, amounting to the crimes of forced labour and severe exploitation, require different responses, sometimes combined, applying labour law and/or criminal justice approaches. In Italy, there is not yet specific legislation to prevent and suppress the crime of severe labour exploitation. Rather, a range of legal instruments are used, most of them put in place in the last decade. The crime is mainly prosecuted using a set of trafficking instruments introduced in 2003, however, according to law enforcement officers and magistrates, to define a case as severe labour exploitation is often difficult due to the lack of evidence and employers are often prosecuted for lesser offences such as extortion or other types of coercion (Amnesty International 2012).2 Specific legislation was also introduced in 2003 to punish ‘illegal intermediation in the employment of labour, and since 2012 aggravating factors can be taken into account if conditions of particularly severe exploitation exist.3

However, law enforcement agencies do not keep specific data on the severe exploitation of West African workers, as the country of origin of exploited workers is not recorded. An exception is the data collected by the Direzione Nazionale Antimafia, the Anti-Mafia Investigation Department, on victims of trafficking which indicate the nationality of victims and defendants, however, again the data mostly concerns trafficking for sexual exploitation and are, therefore, not useful for the purpose of this chapter.

Qualitative research has proved more valuable in providing insight into how the exploitation of migrant workers takes place. A reconstruction of exploitation patterns based on 19 interviews with severely exploited workers from Nigeria delineates the existence of traffickers who organise the departure and exploitation of workers in Italy (Carchedi

2013). More specifically, a recent investigation has revealed a complex trafficking network that moved irregular immigrants from North and West Africa, recruited predominantly in Tunisia, to Sicily and then onto the mainland for seasonal agricultural work in Pachino, Siracusa and Lecce. The migrants had the money they had brought with them taken, were housed in accommodation with no running water, sanitation or electricity, and forced to work shifts of 10-12 hours (TGCom24 2012). In general, labour exploitation of West African workers has been found in local labour markets where workers of different nationalities co-exist. It is quite rare that specific patterns of exploitation involving West African workers are recorded by law enforcement agencies. The head of the police agency dealing with the protection of labour rights, and all 13 magistrates interviewed by the author, indicate that there is no evidence of a specific network established to severely exploit migrants from West Africa. According to police sources, the crimes in Italy concerning West Africans that are most commonly investigated remain trafficking of women for prostitution and drug smuggling. These illegal businesses are, in general, run jointly by Nigerians with Italian and/or Senegalese accomplices (Interviews with an Interpol officer, Rome; Officer in the Police HQ, Rome).

Operations targeting severe labour exploitation are rarely launched, proactive investigation is not undertaken and crimes are usually not reported. According to informed sources, law enforcement agencies do not have sufficient human resources to investigate labour exploitation, especially since these agencies are already over-stretched addressing high levels of domestic organised crime in the areas of southern Italy where much of the severe exploitation takes place (Medici senza Frontiere 2007; Amnesty International 2012). The social invisibility of undocumented migrants and their unwillingness to report their exploiters further militates against effective investigation (International Organisation for Migration 2010). As one interviewee notes, ‘if someone reports their employer, they will not find anyone else willing to employ them as they will be considered as a destabilising element’ (Interview with the Carabinieri, Head of the Command for the Protection of Labour, Rome). This unwillingness to report exploitation is also further entrenched by the criminal offence of illegally entering and staying in Italy, introduced in 2009, which renders irregular migrants open to deportation.4 Some police officers and labour inspectors are predisposed to treating severely exploited migrant workers not as victims but as criminals. One magistrate sums up the plight of the migrant worker as ‘being an illegal immigrant and not knowing the language, the culture, one’s rights, and with having absolutely no awareness of the rights which the worker, despite being an immigrant, may exercise’ (Mancini 2010).

Often, migrant workers are unable to identify themselves as victims of exploitation. Evidence points to most cases of migrant exploitation being reported by local solidarity organisations, as well as hospitals which are required by law to report illegal immigrants (Interview with the Carabinieri, Head of the Command for the Protection of Labour, Rome). Trade unions, despite attempting to raise public awareness, are not often involved in reporting individual instances of abuse.5 An official at the Nigerian Embassy also reports few cases of exploitation being reported unless they involve serious injury or death, in which case compensation is often being sought (Interview with an officer at the Nigerian Embassy in Rome).

The chapter continues by reconstructing two cases of exploitation in different labour sectors involving, amongst others, West African workers, in order to demonstrate the dynamics of the abuse.

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