Italy's secret 'slave' labourers: Unskilled fruit pickers working for a pittance to supply tourists with wine – sometimes with fatal consequences

Tens of thousands of poor, unskilled female labourers and migrants are working in often illegal conditions, for as little as £1.50 an hour

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The Independent Online

Paola Clemente, a 49-year-old mother of three, rose at 2am, on 13 July as she usually did. She took the coach from her little town of San Giorgio Jonico to arrive at the vineyard near Andria after 5am. But she never came home.

Despite complaining that she felt unwell on the way to work, the man who hired her reportedly told her that discomfort would pass. In fact she died that day, her heart apparently giving out in the fields where she picked grapes in 38C heat for £1.50 per hour.

Her death has put the spotlight on the plight of southern Italy’s fruit pickers, with tens of thousands of poor, unskilled female labourers and migrants working in often illegal conditions, and doing punishing hours for a pittance.

In Puglia, the beautiful heel of the Italian boot where five-star hotels and luxury villas cater to northern Europe’s middle classes, something akin to modern slavery is supplying the holidaymakers with the wine and food they enjoy at their dinner table. And many of the fruits of the region make their way as far as the British supermarkets. 

Another Italian worker from Ms Clemente’s home town suffered a heart attack in the same fields at the end of July. A week after Ms Clemente’s death, a 47-year-old Sudanese man, Mohammed, died near Lecce, in similar circumstances, and not longer after him a Tunisian worker perished.

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Paola Clemente with her husband Stefano Arcuri

 

“To die working in a field of grapes is to immediately become a phantasm, with no news emerging for weeks,” said Peppino Deleonardis, the regional secretary of the Flai-Cgil farm workers union. “Paola would not have expected to die like that, after 15 years of working in the fields from dawn until after dark.”

On Wednesday last week Ciro Grassi, from Taranto, who is understood to have recruited Ms Clemente and the other workers and took them to the fields to pick grapes, was placed under investigation by magistrates, suspected of homicide and failure to come to the aid of a sick person.

Prosecutors have ordered Ms Clemente’s body be exhumed and an autopsy is due to take place this week.

Ms Clemente’s son Marco was still too upset to speak about her death. But Vito Miccolis, one of the high-powered legal team paid for by the Flai-Cgil union, told The Independent that her family was determined to find out the truth about how she died. Details are sketchy so far.

“The biggest challenge is changing people’s attitudes here,” said Mr Miccolis. “People here working for this sort of money in these sort of conditions is normal.

“Many of the pickers are union members. The problem is that people are frightened about losing their jobs. They need this money. Some places in Puglia use Romanians and Albanians – and they’re treated even worse,” he said.

The chief prosecutor of Trani, Carlo Maria Capristo, said he aimed to bring justice to the victims and their families, but he added: “On the phenomenon of illegal hiring there is a wall of silence. People prefer to earn a little money instead of collaborating with our inquiries aimed at eradicating the problem.”

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Apulia, south Italy

Ms Clemente’s husband, Stefano Arcuri, explained why his wife worked in such conditions when a journalist from La Repubblica last week suggested to him that they amounted to “slavery”. “It was secure money,” Mr Arcuri said. “Given the way things are in Italy, it was vital income for Paola and us. It enabled us to survive.”

Ms Clemente was working via an intermediary contractor for the Ortofrutta Meridionale company, which has 250 employers and a turnover of €12m (£8.7m). The owner of Ortofrutta Meridionale was not available to talk when The Independent called. He has been called in for questioning by prosecutors although he has not been charged with any offence.

Mr Miccolis said there were doubts over where the relative ethical and legal responsibilities of the proprietor and the intermediary firm lay, and that a degree of buck-passing was not uncommon. He said, though, that Ms Clemente’s employment may not have broken any national laws. Mr Deleonardis of the Flai-Cgil union, on the other hand, thought hers could be “a terrible example of illegal hiring”.

It is known, however, that Ms Clemente and her fellow workers were taking home €27, for what were 12 to 13-hour days including the long round trips – despite provincial guidelines that called for a minimum day rate of €52.

Mr Grassi did have legitimate work documents for Ms Clemente. But unions say the existence of three or four layers of sub-contracting dissipates corporate responsibility and accounts for the doubts over the legality of he operation – and the pitifully small pay packet that workers such as Ms Clemente take home. Usually the landowner uses a temporary work agency, which itself employs a transport firm that hires a driver.

The Flai-Cgil union estimates that over 40,000 female fruit pickers in Puglia alone are victims of labour sub-contracting, illegal hiring and contract violations. Thousands more work in the black economy harvesting the region’s tomatoes. In an investigation four years ago for website The Ecologist, Conserve Italia, which makes the Cirio brand of tinned tomatoes that supplies British supermarkets, admitted it uses migrant workers, but said they had strict codes of conduct to prevent abuse.

Mr Deleonardis claimed some of the sick or dead fruit pickers had maybe been exposed to “dangerous pesticides that made workers feel ill”. The Agriculture Minister, Maurizio Martina, likened the activity of those who organised fruit-picking labour to the Mafia. He said that, starting from next month, there would be a new system of checks and accreditation that would allow consumers to know whether the produce they were buying came from farms with ethical employment practices.

Too late, though, for Paola Clemente and dozens of others like her, who were worked, without mercy, into early graves.

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