Agromafia: how Italy is turning migrants into slaves

Exploited and reduced to silence, migrants are modern slaves.

Supposedly, slavery was abolished centuries ago. But most recent statistics say that in Europe over 1 million people are slaves, victims of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labour.

Italy is one of the European countries, along with Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Romania where modern slavery labour conditions are still in high numbers. The Report “Modern Slavery Index 2017” by the British Study Centre Verisk Maplecroft, highlights the tight relation between increasing immigrants on the European shores and the increasing slavery problem, in particular in primary countries of arrival.

The vulnerable condition of migrants at the moment of arrival makes many ‘prey’ of the international organized crime and ruthless European businessmen, who lure them into an illicit labour market with promises of residence permits and easy money.

But the reality turns out to be much different. After a tragic boat journey, they struggle to integrate into the host country, living in precarious welcome centres, desperate to find a job and regularize their legal position.

The ‘European welcome’ consists of underpaid jobs in unqualified labour sectors, exploitation and often psycho-physical forms of violence.  

From migrants to slaves

In Italy, migrants are victims of the huge business called “agromafia”, short for mafia in the agriculture sector, estimated to have had a revenue of around 14 billion euros in 2013. FLAI-CGIL is the Italian labour union which supervises and protects human rights in working conditions in the agriculture field. Professor Jean-Rene Bilongo, FLAI-CGIL Migrants Affairs National Officer in the interview with WIB, says “Migrants are often victims of exploitative labour in agriculture” and it is not an issue limited to Southern Italy.

The ‘enslaving process’, begins even before migrants arrive on the Italian shores. In fact, the organized crime, through local intermediaries in Africa and the Middle East, arranges the journey for thousand euro, a debt that forces them to accept horrid living and working conditions at the time of arrival. Obliged to work in illegal forms to pay back the debt, migrants also get threatened to be exposed to the police their illegal stay in the country, thus facing the repatriation.


The big agri-food Italian market is the most affected by exploitation, abuses and violence, where 80% of labour are immigrants. According to Report “Caporalato e Agromafie” by Flai Cgil, 400.000 people work in semi-slavery labour conditions over 700.000 in the illegal labour market in the Italian agriculture field.

Embed from Getty Images

When asked why these are referred to as “slavery conditions” Professor Bilongo replies “Slavery-like working conditions means “working and living” just like slaves: very long working days for very miserable wages, very poor housing conditions, forced loneliness, violence.“ And these are exactly the conditions these migrants are forced into.

The demand of work labour is abundant, but the high taxation, labour cost and the severe economic crisis that Italy is facing, encourage the mechanism of an illegal market, added Public Prosecutor of Foggia, Vincenzo Russo, to Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

The slavery conditions happen all over the country, from tomato and olive plantations in the South to the best wine-producing companies in the North and it is not possible to create a detailed map of slavery in Italy because the phenomenon is “systemic and fluid”.

“Slavery-like working conditions means “working and living” just like slaves: very long working days for very miserable wages, very poor housing conditions, forced loneliness, violence.“

Professor Bilongo defines the  exploitative labour in  Italy’s agriculture an “emergency” and points out that the organized crime is “involved from top to toe in the caporaletic system and massive exploitative labour”.

Silence is a crime too

Italian Magazine L’Espresso, entitled its September 2017 investigative report “We were asking for protection, now we are slaves:  a typical day in a welcome centre in Sicily, among immigrants and their daily routine.

The Centri d’Accoglienza Straordinari (CAS), are private structures which are re-adapted for the immigrant emergency.

Abuses are part of the day, just recently law Enforcement handcuffed two people in Taranto for severe labour exploitation, explains Professor Bilongo. “35 Romanians workers paid 1,5 euros per hour for seventeen hours a day with no weekly break” and parked in basic rooms with no toilets, he adds. “At any complain, they would be bitterly beaten up”.

In their investigation, Espresso explained that Bureaucracy and impunity for crimes in the CAS, contribute to the spread on the territory of a criminal system called “caporalato”, an illegal form of labour recruitment made by intermediaries who receive a bribe.

“paid 1,5 euros per hour for seventeen hours a day with no weekly break”

It is an intricate web of territorial crime systems, the absence of the State, silence and complicity of local authorities, corruption.  

Is Law-making enough?

Since 2016 the Italian Parliament implemented a legal framework to fight the agromafia and caporalato phenomenons, including the addition of new punishable crimes to the Italian Criminal Code, sanctions and imprisonment.

This policy change is having a positive impact on reality: new law enforcement operations influence the trust of exploited workers to denounce their conditions to the authorities. Professor Bilongo says that “It’s now very common – almost on a daily basis- to go through papers narrating of people arrested for labour exploitation”, appearing that “repression and punishment from the criminal standpoint are effective”.

Embed from Getty Images

However, the law is just a step to uproot these events. It is important to spread awareness across the public opinion, producing consciousness for the role that everyone plays in the creation of a more equal and fair society.

Slavery and exploitation today diminish the steps forward that the human rights protection has made worldwide and it reminds of the deep contradictions of our modern society.

Human Rights
Stefania Mascolo

Stefania is a Master student graduate in International Security, working in International Affairs and Military Defense field, but also involved in Human Rights protection. She combines her area of expertise with journalistic skills and teaching experience in Latin America.
    One Comment
  • Avatar
    Ayo Awokoya
    20 June 2018 at 4:06 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Hi Stefania,

    I just read your piece and would like to discuss its contents with you as soon as possible. I’m a freelance journalist who has written for The Financial Times and other outlets. I’m also a foreign deputy news editor for Sky News. I believe the editor of WIB will be contacting you about me as well.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

    All the best,

    Ayo Awokoya

  • Leave a Reply



    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    About us

    Words In The Bucket is a team of global citizens with the common goal of raising awareness and information about issues related to human rights protection, social inclusion, development and environment.

    We are "Rethinking World Thinking"