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Reportage. In labor exploitation cases, a pattern of theft and cruelty: “Women need pizza and beatings, otherwise they do not learn.”

Enslaved and insulted, Italian laborers strike back

Eight suspects, one in prison and two under house arrest. A company in Ostuni that recruited laborers, forced them to work over 10 hours a day, while declaring only 6.5 hours in the payroll thus scamming the INPS, Italian National Social Security Institute.

Sometimes, according to prosecutors, the “employees” were forced to work from 3 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week in the province of Bari for the fields at Polignano a Mare. And if this was not enough, the workers were forced to pay €10 per person each working day as reimbursement for fuel expenses — essentially engineering their own kickback.

The criminal scheme revealed Wednesday by prosecutors in Brindisi is a story of exploitation without limits and rules, of dignity trampled. Anna Maria Iaia, 50, of San Vito dei Normanni, was arrested. She is an employee of 2 Erre SRL, the firm that, according to the prosecution, ran a criminal association devoted to exploitation. Under house arrest are Giuseppe Bello, 49, of San Michele Salentino, the bus driver who led the laborers into the fields, and Anna Errico,73, the mother of the alleged foreman.

According to the investigation, Bello supervised the work team he controlled, engaged either in a warehouse or in the fields, on behalf of the Brindisi company. According to the criminal complaint, Iaia did the hiring. Between January 2015 and November 2016, they recruited 22 agricultural laborers and transported them daily from San Vito dei Normanni to Carovigno, aboard a Fiat Ducato vehicle owned by 2 Erre SRL, and a Fiat Scudo vehicle owned by the woman.

The exploitation went from Nov. 4, 2016, to March 1, when they recruited at least 28 other workers. They got copies of their taxpayer ID cards and other identity documents and used them for the labor contracts and pay slips. Investigators analyzed the attendance records and payroll: The amount the workers should have earned was €131.97 per day, but the laborers were instead paid just €59.53.

The laborers received each month from Iaia a salary allowance and a pay slip, along with a handwritten note that indicated the amount to be reimbursed under the table for the daily €10 fuel charge. So, after cashing the check in the bank, they had to go back to the woman’s home to deliver the kickback. Indeed, it has been documented, as reported by the acting prosecutor for Brindisi, Raffaele Casto, in an attempt at tampering with evidence, they tried to force some workers to deny having paid €10 for transport.

Another four individuals are under investigation and were released on bail. Among them, the owner of the company, Francesco Semerano from Ostuni.

The good thing about all this, if there is one, is that the investigation began with a complaint by the laborers themselves. The police have also conducted telephone and environmental interceptions. They acquired phone records and used GPS records. And from these intercepts, the darkest and most dramatic side of this story emerged: “Whore, slut, make it fast or you’ll be late tonight.” This is the tone with which Bello addressed the laborers, censored by the investigating prosecutor Paola Liaci in the order for custody. It was the same thing with Iaia: “You don’t understand shit about how many days you worked,” she said to one of the laborers during a telephone conversation. “When you get unemployment benefits, you must give me a kiss on the forehead, do you understand? A kiss on the forehead.”

The Brindisi prosecutor’s office is tightening a noose around laborer exploitation. Just two days ago in a separate case, they arrested four others, all Italians, for exploiting at least 15 women — Italians and two foreigners, from the Brindisi and Taranto areas — in the cherry fields and vineyards of Turi, near Bari. Again, their schedules were well beyond the six and a half hours described on the contract; the employers were stealing their wages.

Also in this case, the laborers initiated the case themselves with complaints. And again there were the ghastly intercepted insults that leave us dismayed: “Women need pizza and beatings, otherwise they do not learn,” and “Women, mules and goats: They all have the same mind.”

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