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Slavery in Sorting Italian Grapes for Wine

April 13, 2017
Plain English Version

Bottles of Italian wine.

No doubt, Italian wine is good. The story behind that bottle may not be so good. In fact, it is a tale of modern slavery.

The job is picking and sorting grapes. Women do it. Sometimes they do it for twelve hours a day.

Paola Clemente started her day at 1:50 a.m. She took a private bus to the vineyard. After twelve hours of work, her take-home pay was about $29. The middlemen who control the jobs take their money before it gets to the worker.

Workers, such as Ms. Clemente, would not and could not complain. The only way to get work was through the middlemen. They controlled the labor market.

Paola Clemente died of a heart attack while working in the fields. She was 49. Her death started an investigation.

Two years later, the results of the investigation are in. Results of the inquiry showed how the system used poor women. Fear is the most important thing. An expert said, “It was a system of slaves. It impoverishes small farmers. It enriches the large retailers. It favors money laundering.”

Farm owners paid middlemen to pick up and transport the women. Sometimes, the middlemen charged two-thirds of the women’s pay as the cost of the ride. Five-hour trips were not counted on the clock as hours worked.

If the women complained, the recruiter would threaten not to call them anymore. A recruiter told one woman, “Another woman can take your place.”

An official said, “We faced a wall of silence. We see it as exploitation. Workers see it as a chance. A job they dread losing.”

Several women said the middlemen were benefactors. They were lucky to have the work.

The government enacted reforms. Italy passed a new law against underpaying workers. It calls for jail sentences. It imposes harsh fines. It allows for the seizing of property and bank accounts. Is it working? Some middlemen went to jail. But change is still hard to come by.

Observers say the laws are a burden for small companies. The law favors large producers.

There is praise for the law as a first step. But the scarcity of work is driving a race to the bottom. A union official talked about the system. “The problem is that enslaved workers don’t take advantage of the gains. The only thing that increases is competition among workers.”

The cruel use of workers is not unique to Italy. But observers agree Italy has one of the worst records for these workers.

Source: The New York Times April 11, 2017

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