The rapid response team's operation against the organization exploiting migrants in Sicily | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/Polizia di Stato press office
The rapid response team's operation against the organization exploiting migrants in Sicily | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/Polizia di Stato press office

Five people were arrested in Italy on charges of exploitation and underpayment of Nigerian migrant women. The women were living in shelters and were employed by a consortium in the cleaning sector in Sicily.

They came to Italy in the hope of finding a better future, leaving behind the economic misery of their country only to find themselves exploited as "slaves to cleaning", explained Italy's largest union, CGIL.

"The pay was €400 per month. The number of hours of work were never specified. We worked 10, 12 hours in a row. If we asked for our rights and guarantees we were fired and kicked out of the WhatsApp chat used by the employers to inform us every morning where we needed to go to clean," said one of a group of 20 Nigerian women, who allege they have been exploited after arriving in Italy.

The women were accommodated in shelters in Sicily, and after working in these conditions for a while, decided to speak to the Italian authorities. They spoke first to the territorial Commission for the recognition of international protection in Trapani and secondly with the police agents in Palermo, headed by Marco Basile. The police began an investigation into the firm said to be employing the women, the Diadema Consortium, and that led to the arrest of five people on Thursday (July 21).

Exploitation of women's vulnerability

"What makes the crime even more odious and serious is that laborers were specifically profiled for exploitation within the context of the city of Palermo," concluded the investigating judge Annalisa Tesoriere.

Tesoriere believes that the migrants at the shelter were "targeted specifically" because they were in Italy without papers, and were consequently vulnerable. The judge outlined the context by which she believes this kind of exploitation could survive. Hotels, B&Bs and other facilities are trying to cut costs by all means. The key word is to save. This means reducing personnel and outsourcing services.

Many of these businesses rely on temp agencies and consortia offering competitive prices, bypassing national contracts to the detriment of the laborer's rights. For the workers, this can translate into hours and hours of additional work which was not agreed prior to the contract, and extremely low wages paid to laborers.

Up to 40 businesses in Palermo and Trapani were allegedly using the services of these women to clean their premises. The businesses, according to the local press, ranged from Hotels and Bed and Breakfast accommodation to restaurants.

House arrest

Investigators have arrested individuals who are allegedly responsible for running the cleaning consortium and some of the cleaning businesses that formed part of it, as well as some members of the teams running three women's shelters: La Mano di Francesco in the town of Roccamena, near Palermo, Donne Nuove in Palermo and Opera pia Riccobono in the town of San Giuseppe Jato, up on the hill above Palermo.

In total, three men and two women have been placed under house arrest. They are all accused of criminal conspiracy aimed at an illicit brokering and work exploitation, fraud and extortion with the aggravating circumstance of having committed these crimes against the Italian state. According to the local press, they have been banned from acting in their director roles for the period of one year.

Women threatened with eviction from shelters

The stories from the women, said the police, are similar. Most of them have claimed they were blackmailed when they protested about the long 10-12 hour working shifts. They were told they could be thrown out of the shelters where they were staying, and later out of the country, if they complained.

Some even claim to have worked for free and not been paid at all.

"For one week I had to sleep on a chair on the porch. I couldn't even take a shower," recounts a man who was hired as a security guard for a hotel in Castelvetrano. "I would complain over the phone with mister Johnsy [one of those accused, a man from Kenya] who after five days came to Castelvetrano but the situation never changed. After three months mister Johnsy informed me that my job was terminated and he did not pay my promised salary which had [originally] been agreed [at] €600 per month."


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