A tale of slavery in modern-day Italy

By Michelle Hough
Caritas Internationalis

Sunday is the first International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking.

Graffiti on the walls of the social center where Caritas Caserta assists migrants. (Michelle Hough)

Graffiti on the walls of the social center where Caritas Caserta assists migrants. (Michelle Hough)

CASERTA, Italy — Jean Konan* speaks five languages. He’s bright, articulate and knows his rights. He’s also been a modern-day slave, working in the fields for just €25 ($29) a day and sometimes for nothing at all.

“They say that slavery’s been abolished, yet it still exists but it’s invisible,” says Jean.

He left his home in Ivory Coast in 2006 when the political situation became unsettled. As a language student he thought he’d have a brighter future abroad.

After a terrible journey across the Sahara, through Libya and across the Mediterranean, Jean arrived in Caserta, near Naples. It’s a hub for African migrants looking for work in agriculture.

Caritas gave him a place to stay and food, and very soon he joined dozens of other African migrants who gathered at the town’s roundabouts at dawn, waiting to be picked up by foremen who would give them work in the fields.

In his first job picking tobacco, he got €2 ($2.2) an hour for 12 hours’ work a day. For picking oranges in the south of Italy, he got around €22 ($25) a day. He thought he’d hit the jackpot when an electrician took him on as an assistant, promising him €1,200 ($1,374) per month. He eventually got €250 ($286) after a month’s work and was let go. After that, a woman gave him work picking tobacco but didn’t pay him anything after two months.

More wall art in Caserta. (Michelle Hough)

More wall art in Caserta. (Michelle Hough)

“They knew I had no papers and they knew they could do what they wanted with me,” said Jean. “I was afraid I could go to prison if I said anything.”

With encouragement and help from a lawyer at Caritas, Jean reported his employer to the authorities. They took the woman to court, but didn’t manage to get the money owed to Jean.

“The real chains that bind Italy’s migrant workers are economic ones,” said Gian Luca Castaldi, head of the migrant office at Caritas Caserta.

He explains that migrant workers don’t report unscrupulous employers for a number of reasons. They are afraid and see their poverty as an inescapable reality; they don’t want to be seen as a traitor by the other workers; they feel as though the owe something to the informal labor network in which many migrants without documents work; and legal proceedings in Italy can be very long and complicated. In some cases, the workers don’t even realize that they’re being exploited when they’re paid too little, too late or nothing at all.

This graffiti says, "We're all illegals." (Michelle Hough)

This graffiti says, “We’re all illegals.” (Michelle Hough)

Castaldi says that the African migrant workers around Caserta risk far more than non-payment for work. Apart from physical abuse, Castaldi says that out of 101 migrants Caritas is helping because of labor exploitation, around 30 have been sexually abused. There have also been unconfirmed cases of organ trafficking in the area.

A doctor working for the medical service Caritas offers weekly to the migrants says that migrants suffer both physically and mentally. He says there are many cases of depression and alcoholism. Many of the migrants have skin ailments because of the nature of their work and stomach problems because of poor diet. There’s also a high number of previously undiagnosed cases of diabetes.

Jean got his papers when the Italian government created an amnesty for migrants and is now working as a mediator for migrants at the Caritas center in Caserta, and is part of the Immigrant and Refugee Movement of Caserta.

“It’s inhuman to treat us like this,” he says. “We need laws against exploitation and we must all work together – all people of all different races – for future generations. People must shake off their ignorance.”

“I still dream of a future. I feel I can help people change their lives and I want to use my experience with racism to help them,” says Jean.

*Name changed to protect identity

Caritas Internationalis coordinates COATNET – Christian Organizations Against Trafficking in Human Beings. It’s a network that links together 42 Christian groups which are fighting human trafficking. They raise awareness, lobby for change and help people who’ve been trafficked or abused by employers. Learn more here.

This article was made possible thanks to the support of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

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