[Stop-traffic] News/Europe: Europeans are only now learning of the horror of widespread sweatshops that use forced immigrant labor

New Message Reply Date view Thread view Subject view Author view Other groups

Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/Europe: Europeans are only now learning of the horror of widespread sweatshops that use forced immigrant labor
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Wed Nov 15 2000 - 09:10:14 EST

Here is a perfect example of trafficking, although, of course, they
don't call it that!


Workers in bondage
Europeans are only now learning of the horror of widespread sweatshops that
use forced immigrant labor
By Gail Edmondson in Prato, Italy, with Kate Carlisle in Rome, Inka Resch
in Paris, Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin, and Heidi Dawley in London
Business Week, November 27, 2000

On a chilly December night almost two years ago, a desperate Chinese man
appeared at military police headquarters in Bergamo, Italy, begging for
help. His 25-year-old wife, Deng Xingmei, an illegal immigrant, had tried
to flee slavelike working conditions in a garment sweatshop near Milan. But
the Chinese gangsters who had arranged her illegal passage to Italy for $
25,000 -- and expected her to spend years working off her debt -- captured
her at gunpoint. The police tapped her husband's phone to trace threatening
calls from Chinese mobsters, and five days later they freed a raped and
beaten Deng.

Deng Xingmei's kidnapping turned out to be a vital breakthrough for the
police. Building on information gleaned from Deng's imprisoned tormentors,
Italian authorities launched a nationwide investigation. After 16 months of
undercover work, ''Operation Sunrise'' climaxed on Apr. 7 with raids on
sweatshops in 28 cities from Milan to Rome. The raids broke up a criminal
network of some 200 gangsters in China, Russia, and Italy involved in
bringing Chinese immigrants to Italy and forcing them to work 12 to 16
hours a day in textile, apparel, shoe, and leather factories for little or
no pay. And the police are far from finished with their work: Similar raids
continue to uncover illegal sweatshops every week, some revealing children
as young as 11 working 20 hours a day. ''The [immigrants] have no idea what
awaits them,'' says Lieutenant Tiziano Benedetti, who headed Operation


And many Europeans have no idea of the horrors that unfold daily in
thousands of sweatshops tucked into the grimy suburbs of the region's great
cities. Western Europeans have always prided themselves on the high
standards its governments impose on employers and in the workplace: Workers
have far more rights and protections than workers in the freewheeling U.S.
Those vaunted protections, however, are meaningless to the hundreds of
thousands of immigrants now flooding into Europe from the old Soviet bloc,
China, India, Southeast Asia, and the Balkans -- from anywhere, in other
words, where millions of people are desperate to escape destitution.

These economic refugees pay dearly for their flight to the prosperous West.
Tens of thousands wind up working as forced laborers in factories,
sweatshops, and service industries run by mobsters throughout Western
Europe's thriving underground economy. Many of these immigrants become part
of a secret underclass of the exploited, which experts are now defining as
tantamount to 21st century slavery.

This emergence of a new black economy of forced laborers is a dramatic
social setback for the welfare states of Europe. ''There is no doubt about
it. We are faced with a modern slave trade that cannot be accepted or
tolerated by civilized society,'' says Paul Higdon, director of the
criminal intelligence directorate at Interpol, the international police
force, in the French city of Lyons.

In a two-month investigation involving dozens of interviews with police,
victims, immigration authorities, union officials, and industry leaders,
BUSINESS WEEK has traced the emergence of this fast-spreading economic
crime. Only recently have police and international agencies such as the
U.N. started to sound an international alarm, while a series of raids and
arrests across Europe in the past year have begun to reveal a widespread
problem. ''We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,'' says Pino Arlacchi,
executive director of the U.N. Office for Drug Control & Crime Prevention
in Vienna and author of the recent book Slaves: The New Traffic in Human
Beings. ''It's the fastest-growing criminal market in the world.''


Europe, of course, is not the only prosperous region afflicted by this
underground trade. In the U.S., officials know that illegal immigrants are
also pressed into debt servitude, but have trouble defining the problem.
U.S. gangs have gotten more sophisticated, says Kingman Wong, head of the
trafficking unit for the FBI in Washington. The traffickers let immigrants
make a new life on their own, but if they fail to repay mafia bosses, their
family members are at risk. That way, ''there are fewer horror stories that
deter others from coming,'' says Wong.

In Europe, where the trade is thought to be newer, horror stories haven't
scared off the thousands seeking a new chance in a modern economy. The
story of Europe's sweatshops and the people who toil in them reveals the
dark side of the changes that have swept through the world economy in the
past decade. A dangerous mix of factors has come together since the
collapse of the Berlin Wall, allowing such bondage to flourish. One is the
poverty that drives destitute classes in much of the world to emigrate at
any risk. The collapse of ex-Soviet-bloc economies and the rapid growth of
international crime rings specializing in the trafficking of human beings
have also created an expanding supply of illegal immigrant laborers
vulnerable to abuse.

It's a sick twist on free-market economics: Employers squeezed by global
competition are desperate to cut costs, and middlemen -- the gangs -- are
eager to provide illegal workers and slash the price of labor to nearly
zero. Europe's rigid market regulations and its high labor costs are also
fostering a healthy demand for illegal workers just when the opening of the
world economy is putting competitive pressures on Europe's second-tier

So the sweatshops that once flourished only outside the rigidly patrolled
borders of the European Union, in countries such as Turkey and Morocco, are
becoming common in the EU itself. Often, outsourcing production to such
sweatshops is the only solution for small and midsize suppliers under
intense pressure to match global competition on prices. ''What has emerged
is a stratum of slavery-like work that takes advantage of immigrants'
vulnerability,'' says Francesco Carchedi, director of research for Parsec,
a Rome research outfit working on a report on the trafficking in human beings.

It's impossible to say how many workers in Europe's hidden factories could
be called contract slaves -- paying with their own sweat the exorbitant
fees traffickers charge -- under the threat of violence against themselves
or family members and earning little more than the food they eat. After
all, immigrants through the ages have always worked in the worst conditions
in their adopted countries, accepting the hardship as the first step up the
economic ladder.

But hardship does not always translate into outright bondage. Certainly not
all illegal immigrants become indentured slaves or suffer the fate of Deng.
And there is a gray zone between what experts are calling
''superexploitation'' and slavery.

But no matter how you look at it, the problem is huge. Trafficking gangs
bring hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants each year into the EU, many
of whom are deceived by criminal recruiters who promise them a job. Illegal
immigration to the EU has gone from an estimated 40,000 in 1993 to 500,000
this year. The biggest wave of illegal immigrants by far is from China,
where highly organized criminal networks transport illegals and press them
into work. According to conservative estimates by researchers and others,
at least 100,000 illegal immigrants are working in contract slavery in the EU.

The basic method for trapping these immigrants is the same worldwide. Gang
members in Asia and the old Soviet bloc agree to smuggle workers into
Europe and find them jobs and lodging for a fee: Most illegals agree to pay
charges ranging from $ 5,000 to $ 25,000 for passage into the EU. Some of
the Chinese moving to Europe have enough money to pay the fee upfront and
can start their new life debt-free. But most others are poor, ill-educated,
and full of fantasies about life in the West.

Once the immigrants land in Europe, without papers, they are at the mercy
of the gangs that transported them and the bosses who employ them. Anyone
who balks at the dreary underground factories where immigrants often sleep
and eat next to their machines may be beaten by the local ringleader who
pays them enough only to survive while their debt is paid down. ''Before
your employer 'pays' you, he deducts an unspecified sum to pay the debt --
that's the trap,'' explains David Ould, deputy director of Anti-Slavery
International in London.

Poor immigrants are easily ensnared. One victim, Petronel Olteanu, fled
abject poverty in Romania -- not realizing he would become an indentured
slave in Italy. He was smuggled into Italy by a ''network'' he refused to
identify out of fear. The pale, despondent 25-year-old spoke to BUSINESS
WEEK after his Italian employer was indicted on charges of murdering one of
Olteanu's co-workers. ''I knew the situation I was getting into was bad.
But I felt like I was trapped,'' he says after nervously checking a
reporter's credentials.


Sent to Gallarate, 30 minutes north of Milan, Olteanu was forced to work 14
hours a day laying tiles at construction sites around Milan for sustenance
pay. His Italian boss hired thugs to intimidate and beat Olteanu and 11
co-workers and keep them from any thought of rebellion. At night, they were
locked in a tiny, rat-infested room. Says Olteanu: ''It was obvious that
for [the boss] we were possessions.'' Olteanu was finally freed in a March
police raid of the warehouse where he and his co-workers were held captive.

Trafficking in and exploiting workers like Olteanu is big business. Global
profits from trafficking have zoomed to $ 9 billion, according to a recent
U.N. report, and now exceed drug profits, police say. In Trieste alone,
investigators estimate traffickers took in $ 60 million last year, police

Are the traditional mafia from Italy, Russia, and China involved? Police
investigators in Europe are still trying to figure that out. It's clear
that highly organized gangs with tentacles stretching from Beijing to Milan
recruit immigrants and transport them by plane, truck, and boat to work in
much of Europe. Chinese gangs, which are worldwide, also cooperate with
gangs in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Balkans to arrange safe passage
and false documents. They collaborate with underground employment
contractors throughout Europe. What's not known is whether whole new gangs
are springing up to run this illegal commerce. Italian police believe they
recently nabbed one of the main bosses of a huge Chinese trafficking
operation involving 16 gangs. (page 162).

Some traffickers operate independently. British Indian Joginder Singh
Kaile, 39, smuggled thousands of fellow countrymen, crammed in vans or
cars, 6,000 miles across Asia and Europe to Britain. He took their land in
the Punjab as payment and forced them on arrival to work in his sweatshops,
housing them in squalid conditions and squeezing more and more profit out
of their cheap labor. Kaile charged $ 10,000 a person for a journey.
Investigators estimated he made a profit of nearly $ 3,000 per person,
becoming a millionaire in the process. Last November, police investigators
nabbed Kaile, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of trafficking. He is
serving a 6 1/2-year sentence.

With inadequate resources to patrol borders, former police states such as
Albania, Russia, Slovakia, and Yugoslavia have become bustling transit
zones for tens of thousands of immigrants from more distant regions. ''Five
years ago, controls were so tight you couldn't even move within Albania
from one city to the next, let alone cross the border,'' recalls Albanian
Justice Minister Arben Imami, who concedes that his country has become a
major thoroughfare for illegal immigrants. Border guards and immigration
officials earning only $ 50 to $ 80 a month in the ex-Soviet republics are
easily bribed to let illegal immigrants pass.

Europe's $ 80 billion garment industry is a prime target for traffickers
who want to place semi-skilled workers. Under intense pricing pressure and
subject to sudden swings in demand based on fashion trends, European
manufacturers large and small often outsource production to subcontractors
-- who in turn rely on a chain of other subcontractors.

Illegal-immigrant labor thus provides the low costs and flexible supply
that Europe's tough labor regulations have outlawed. Police who have raided
sweatshops and taken testimony from workers say these mini-factories
produce on a just-in-time basis, responding to bulges in demand by
clothing, leather, and shoe manufacturers.

The turnaround between demand and delivery can be as short as 12 to 24
hours and usually involves low-to-mid-priced clothing. When demand surges
for a certain style of jacket, for example, manufacturers deliver patterns
and expect finished products within hours, investigators say. ''When a
series of clothing runs out, a manufacturer will bring the pattern to a
subcontractor and ask for 2,000 shirts overnight,'' says Pier Luigi Vigna,
head of the National AntiMafia Commission in Rome. An illegal worker with
no access to a union or legal papers may be paid only 65 cents per piece --
and far less if his pay is being docked. Shirts that might cost $ 25 from a
legal subcontractor paying normal wages and taxes can be obtained for
between $ 1 and $ 5 from sweatshops, police say. Meanwhile, the items may
retail for $ 50 or more in European shops.

So far, no major manufacturers have been prosecuted for tapping sweatshops
staffed by illegal immigrants. But Italian and French investigators say
that several large companies are under investigation and that recent raids
have revealed links to brand-name apparel companies. ''Many expensive
retail shops are making use of sweatshops,'' claims Willy Bruggeman, deputy
director at Europol's headquarters in The Hague. ''It's always by
subcontracting, so it's difficult to prove that the buyers knew the
merchandise was produced by slave labor.'' Italy's Sunrise raid revealed
sweatshops producing T-shirts and other articles of clothing with the
insignia of Italian soccer teams. These popular items are sold to small
shops or distribution companies.


Sometimes, forced laborers grow desperate enough to reach out to the
police. Rome Municipal Police Commander Antonio Di Maggio has received
dozens of anonymous letters and phone calls from captive workers in recent
weeks. Among a stack of letters piled on his desk, one typed on old
crumpled paper with a manual typewriter pleaded, in broken Italian: ''Help
us. We are seven immigrant workers in trouble, forced to work long hours
with little food and often abused. We are being kept in a warehouse and
want to be freed.''

Following such leads -- as well as complaints from neighborhoods about the
noise from machines that run all night -- Di Maggio led 18 raids in
September on sweatshops and warehouses on Rome's periphery, snaring 60
illegal workers, 40 of whom were laboring in slavelike conditions and
living in utter squalor. Of that catch, 18 were Chinese garment workers. In
one bust, ''the stench inside was like a slap in the face,'' said Di Maggio.

According to Chinese victims' testimonies taken with the aid of an
interpreter, the workers were locked into the sweatshop at all times and
worked 12 to 14 hours a day. They were paid 50 cents a pair of trousers, or
roughly $ 250 a month. Their employer would arrive once a day with broth.

The same kind of sweatshops are proliferating in the poorer districts of
Paris -- in the city's 10th, 11th, and 13th arrondissements and in the
suburban neighborhoods to the north and northeast of Paris. Here, abandoned
buildings and factories have been transformed into clandestine workshops,
many with hidden cellars, trapdoors, and underground escape routes in case
of police raids.

Like Di Maggio, Lucien Contou, head of the division for the fight against
illegal labor at l'URSSAF, France's social-security collection office,
follows up leads about the strange nighttime noise of machines humming and
reports by local residents of foreigners walking the streets at 3 a.m.,
among others. ''We get so many leads that we can't [follow] them all,''
says Contou.

In June, Contou raided a building in Pantin, just northeast of Paris. A
small trapdoor under a shelf in the wall led to a workshop with 12 textile
machines. Although the sewing machines were still warm, 10 of the 12
workers had already escaped through a small window leading to a back alley.
The Chinese boss was fined $ 6,500 and received a one-year suspended
sentence. Another raid by Contou revealed a Paris sweatshop run by a
Yugoslavian with false papers. He had locked 24 Laotian workers in a filthy
cellar jammed with sewing machines and beds; the case is under investigation.

One illegal Chinese immigrant from southeast China spoke with BUSINESS WEEK
on the condition of anonymity who described a furtive world in which it
seemed impossible to pay off her debt. The 30-year-old woman had worked in
10 sweatshops for more than five years in Paris, sewing clothing and
leather handbags. Because it was safer, she always performed her work at
night to pay off the $ 17,000 cost of her trip and her falsified documents.
She earned $ 21 a day for a 112-hour workweek. Now out of work -- since her
last employer was shut down by the police in October -- she has had to
borrow money from friends and survives on rice and bread. As for her $
17,000 debt, ''I don't want to think about it,'' she says.

EU policymakers so far have done little to fight the exploitation of
illegal immigrants. For starters, many politicians view the presence of
immigrants as a social and economic problem in itself. Some are deported
when discovered, and others -- usually the most maltreated -- are
classified as victims and allowed to remain in the EU. Still, some illegal
immigrants are actually starting to protest in public about their plight.
Yet few laws are on the books to severely sanction the new forms of
bondage. In the U.S., by contrast, President Bill Clinton recently signed a
law raising penalties for traffickers in women and children.

One reason Europe's policymakers may be loath to confront the problem is
that a thriving underground economy helps power Europe's growth and
competitiveness. ''We [Europeans] are benefiting economically,'' says David
Ould, deputy director of Anti-Slavery International.

Illegal immigrant labor, for example, has fueled economic growth in Prato,
a leafy suburb of Florence, where companies owned by legal Chinese
residents of Italy have rebuilt a moribund textile and garment industry.
Unemployment in this prosperous community hovers around 5%, among the
lowest rates in Europe. Chinese residents -- legal and illegal -- cram
buses in the city center but live and work in a world of their own. ''We
have the world's leading knitwear industry, with sales of $ 1.2 billion. It
is thanks to the Chinese that this sector has been revitalized,'' says
Giuseppe Gregori, General Secretary for the Italian labor union CGIL in
Prato. But Prato's newfound competitiveness also relies on a labor force
that pays no heed to Italian labor or tax law, says Gregori, who maintains
that the influx of arrivals is ''growing exponentially and is very
difficult to control.''

Some 1,100 Chinese-owned factories and workshops are legally registered in
Prato, but officials at the local chamber of commerce believe the total is
much larger, with some 40% of production underground. Legal Chinese workers
total 8,000 -- but city officials believe some 4,000 illegal Chinese
immigrants and their children may be working in even worse conditions,
exploited as forced laborers until their heavy debts are paid.


While Europol says the exploitation of immigrants is widespread throughout
Europe -- including Austria, Belgium, Britain, and France -- the problem is
at its worst in Italy. Its 5,000-mile coastline is difficult to patrol.
More important, Italy's underground economy -- at 28% of gross domestic
product, by far the largest of any leading industrialized country -- makes
it a haven for mobsters intent on wringing big profits out of illegal
immigrants. ''The phenomenon of human trafficking and enslavement is
expanding -- a fact that we [Europeans] should be ashamed of,'' says
Italian Interior Minister Enzo Bianco.

Italian authorities have long tolerated a thriving black economy as a kind
of social safety net that is preferable to unemployment, refusing to crack
down on clandestine enterprises. But as Italy has become more prosperous,
the local workers have moved up the social ladder, leaving harder,
industrial jobs in the black economy -- such as the toxic process of curing
leather -- to immigrants. Academics think illegal immigrants fuel as much
as 70% of Italy's underground economy.

Those recruiting illegal immigrants will concoct elaborate schemes to
ensnare new victims. One Romanian immigrant, Maria, told BUSINESS WEEK she
was lured to Italy in July, 1999, by a newspaper advertisement in her
hometown that sought ''young, ambitious workers looking for a better
life.'' Then Maria, 23, arranged to meet in a coffee shop with the
employment agent who had placed the ad. He was an Italian who spoke her
language and offered seemingly normal terms of employment. Smoothly drawing
out her interests, he promised to help Maria eventually enter an Italian
university and become a fashion designer.

Maria boarded a plane bound for Venice, along with three other young
illegal immigrant women and the agent. She ended up in a sweatshop where
one woman factory worker with chains around her ankles fearfully admonished
her not to stay. Alone with the agent, she implored him to allow her family
to pay off her $ 4,000 debt in cash and free her from the agreement to
work. Eventually he relented, but the criminals who transported Maria still
pay her family threatening visits in Romania to keep her from exposing the


Sometimes, it's almost impossible to figure out when a factory is
legitimate and when it is exploiting workers. In one French bust in April,
1999, dubbed Operation Cite Interdite -- whose name echoes the Forbidden
City in Beijing and also evokes the fortress-like nature of the buildings
housing the workshops -- a SWAT team found seven sweatshops in a cluster of
housing projects in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. By day, the
small-scale factories operated legally, employing regular workers. By
night, however, machines continued to hum, operated by illegal Asian
immigrants, some of whom are compelled to work 105 hours a week. The bust
was organized by Armand Huby, police chief at France's Central Office for
the Suppression of Irregular Immigration and the Employment of Illegal
Immigrants. Last year alone, the group managed to uncover 18 international
networks shuttling illegal immigrants into France.

In Europe, international trafficking gangs are now trying to extend their
reach into the local economy, acquiring more factories, restaurants, and
shops to launder money and recycle workers. Police and international
agencies say that some slaves who eventually pay off their debt sign up
with the very criminal organizations that smuggled them into the EU.
Certain Romanians living in the Veneto region of Italy ''run the sweatshops
as mercilessly as when they were workers,'' says Ugo Melchionda, an
immigration specialist at the International Organization for Migration, an
intergovernmental organization.

Unlike the U.S., Europe faces the monumental task of coordinating police
action across borders. Interpol, for example, has been tracking a Croatian
trafficker named Josip Loncarcic, who is believed to be responsible for
bringing some 10,000 illegal Chinese immigrants into the EU. When he
received a sentence in Croatia for smuggling 5,000 Egyptians through that
country on the way to the EU, he fled to Slovenia, where he applied for and
received citizenship. Loncarcic is also wanted in Italy in connection with
the transport of illegal immigrants.

Closer coordination among various police officers may have kept him from
slipping through the net. At least the groundwork is being laid for tighter
cooperation. The U.N. hopes to get members to sign a protocol on
trafficking and exploitation of human beings in December in Sicily.
Bruggeman's Europol unit recently arranged expert meetings to alert
authorities in EU member states to the criminal gangs transforming illegal
immigrants -- including children -- into slaves. And Interpol finally
established a Children & Human Trafficking Div. last year.

But it's unlikely that trafficking in Italy and the rest of the EU will
decline without a major legal crackdown. In the meantime, investigators say
the growing profits from workers in bondage may get recycled into a new
class of criminal organization. The twin businesses of trafficking and
slave labor have already cast a dark shadow over 21st century Europe.
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

Please contact me off-list for any questions about Stop-Traffic at

Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health

Stop-Traffic is an open, facilitated, international electronic list
funded by the Women's Reproductive Health Initiative of the Program
for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) that addresses human
rights abuses associated with trafficking in persons, with a strong
emphasis on public health. The focus of Stop-Traffic is the
trafficking in persons into sweatshop labor, domestic servitude,
forced prostitution, forced agricultural labor and coercive
mail-order bride arrangements. Trafficking in people for forced
labor is an ever-growing worldwide phenomena that affects the health
and well-being of millions of women, men and children.
To subscribe and unsubscribe, please go to


Stop-Traffic archive:


Stop-traffic mailing list

New Message Reply Date view Thread view Subject view Author view Other groups

This archive was generated by hypermail 2a22 : Fri Dec 15 2000 - 09:08:59 EST