By Lorenzo Tondo and Annie Kelly
Every night for almost three years, Nicoleta Bolos lay awake at night on a dirty mattress in an outhouse in Sicily’s Ragusa province, waiting for the sound of footsteps outside the door. As the hours passed, she braced herself for the door to creak open, for the metallic clunk of a gun being placed on the table by her head and the weight of her employer thudding down on the dirty grey mattress beside her.
The only thing that she feared more than the sound of the farmer’s step outside her door was the threat of losing her job. So she endured night after night of rape and beatings while her husband drank himself into a stupor outside.
“The first time, it was my husband who said I had to do this. That the owner of the greenhouse where we had been given work wanted to sleep with me and if we refused he wouldn’t pay us and would send us off his land,” she says.
“I thought he was crazy, but when I refused, he beat me. He said I had to do everything our boss told us to do – it was the only way we could keep our work. When my employer came, he threatened me with a gun. He told me that if I moved he would blow my head off. When he finished he just walked away.”
The next morning Bolos was back at work, crouching beside her husband in a sweltering greenhouse, tending and harvesting the produce that has helped make Italy the biggest grower and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Europe. The province of Ragusa is the third-largest producer of vegetables in Europe.
During her time on the farm, Bolos says, workers were given scarcely habitable accommodation, fed cat food for their evening meal and were refused medical treatment. At night, Bolos and the other female Romanian workers became entertainment for the farmer and his friends, repeatedly raped and abused over many years.
“When I came here I thought I was coming to a hard but decent job in another European country, but we ended up as slaves,” she says.
Hidden among fields of flapping white plastic tents across Ragusa province, 5,000 Romanian women like Bolos are working as seasonal agricultural workers. Their treatment is a growing human rights scandal, being perpetrated with almost complete impunity.
A vulnerable female workforceAdvertisementAn Italian migrant rights organisation, the Proxyma Association, estimates that more than half of all Romanian women working in the greenhouses are forced into sexual relations with their employers. Almost all of them work in conditions of forced labour and severe exploitation.
Police say they believe that up to 7,500 women, the majority of whom are Romanian, are living in slavery on farms across the region. Guido Volpe, a commander in the carabinieri military police in Sicily, told the Observer that Ragusa was the centre of exploitation on the island.
“These women are working as slaves in the fields and we know they are blackmailed to have sex with the owners of the farms or greenhouses because of their psychological subjugation,” he says. “It is not easy to investigate or stop this from happening, as the women are mostly too afraid to speak out.”
Many of the Romanian women leave children and dependent families at home and feel forced into making the desperate choices that have carved deep lines of grief into Bolos’s face.
“Where I come from in Romanian Moldavia, nobody has a job,” says Bolos, as she nurses her five-month-old daughter in a dark warehouse that is now her home on another farm in Ragusa province. “The average salary there is €200 a month. Here you can make much more, even if you need to suffer.”
The Observer spoke to 10 Romanian women working on farms in Ragusa. All detailed routine sexual assault and exploitation, including working 12-hour days in extreme heat with no water, non-payment of wages and being forced to live in degrading and unsanitary conditions in isolated outbuildings. Their working days often include physical violence, being threatened with weapons and being blackmailed with threats to their children and family.
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 can’t 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 couldn’t 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 can’t find a job. The other farm owners know I went to the police and they don’t want me to work for them.”
Eventually, Nicoleta Bolos’s 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-husband’s 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 labourOpportunities 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 Ragusa’s 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, Italy’s 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 don’t want to justify the actions of farmers and greenhouse owners who pay low wages to migrant workers, but these people often don’t 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 don’t 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.”
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 I’ve 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.”
This article was published on The Guardian's website on March 11, 2017.