For two decades, millions of Romanians came to Italy seeking jobs, money and a place to live and bring up their families.
Now this is changing
You may not have heard of Cerignola, but you have eaten something that was grown here.
A town in southeast Italy with a population of 60,000, Cerignola is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and lush fields of tomatoes and wheat. Its land mass is huge, at 593 km², making this the largest Italian commune after Rome and Ravenna.
Agriculture dominates Cerignola. At five in the morning, the streets are jammed with tractors. On the outskirts, petrol stations are crowded with farmers sipping an espresso before work.
Equipment stores and tool warehouses are everywhere. The highways are packed with trucks, hauling processed and fresh produce to supermarkets across the continent.
One central square of Cerignola is scattered with hundreds of stone-framed pits from the 13th century, where locals used to deposit their cereals, flax seeds, and almonds. Every one of these antique silos is accompanied by a stone sign carved with the owner’s initials, creating the illusion of gravestones in a cemetery.
Not far away are two Romanian shops, Cotnari and Corvin, where workers with sunburned faces gather after their day-shift ends, to buy a length of Victoria salami, cured in their home country, a plastic bottle of Neumarkt beer or a phone card.
Here I meet Ciprian Dumbravă, a well-built 35-year-old.
He’s just finished pricking grapes and his limbs are stiff with fatigue. When I shake his hand, I sense a hard and rough surface. His palms are swollen and red, and peeling with layers of skin.
Ciprian is from Bacău County in Romania’s eastern Moldavia region. He arrived in Italy ten years ago and has only worked in agriculture.
During this time, he dealt with Romanians who demanded backhanders to find him a job, agents who “tricked him” by not paying his salary, racist Italian employers, and “sharing a room with 14 other Romanians”. His job was tough, and the hours were long, leaving him numb and weak, and with a cervical herniated disc, but he pushed through the pain, and still toils in the vineyards.
He is one of millions of Romanians who came to live and earn money in Italy over the last two decades. A large number work on building sites, caring for the old, or in agriculture. As their ties strengthen with Italy, their families have joined them, and they’ve brought up children here, while often building a house in their home village in Romania.
In 2013, over 930,000 Romanians lived in Italy. They accounted for 21.2 percent of all foreigners in Italy. By the end of 2019, the Romanian community in Italy increased to 1.14 million. They were the largest group of foreigners on the Peninsula, almost three times as numerous as the Albanians.
Today, many Romanians are moving to other countries. This fall is severe in agriculture, and in Cerignola’s region of Puglia, where their numbers are plummeting in long-term and seasonal jobs.
Data from Italy’s Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, supplied via the Romanian Consulate in Bari, has seen the decline sharpen in 2021. In the first quarter of the year there were almost 5,600 Romanian workers with newly registered contracts, 22.6% less than the previous year, and seasonal workers dropping by 17.7% for the same period.
Why are Romanians leaving?
The number of Romanians in Italy has been steadily decreasing for four years
In front of the Romanian store, Ciprian talks about the different waves of mobile workers which spread over the area.
“Firstly the Tunisians came,” he says, “then the Romanians appeared, and now blacks are coming from Senegal.”
This street used to be full of Romanians, he adds. But their numbers began to drop four years ago. Those who stayed have families here and permanent contracts, linked to Cerignola.
One reason for the fall is rising prices.
“Life has become more expensive,” says Dumbravă. His calculation is based on his own experience in the local store.
“A few years ago I went to the supermarket with 50 euros and filled two big bags,” he adds. “Today I can’t fill those bags for 50 Euro. We are going from bad to worse.”
Other factors are causing this rupture. Romanians are dissatisfied with low incomes, often paid illegally, and poor working conditions. Abuse by Italian employers over decades has accumulated, leaving them unhappy, poor and sometimes sick, both physically and mentally. The pandemic has also added further pain and uncertainty to their working life.
Gheorghe Cozachevici returned to Romania in January 2018, after 18 years in Italy.
“In 2000, Romanians didn’t really have anywhere to go,” he says. “Besides, we weren’t in the European Union. We were clandestine. The [Italian police] carabinieri checked us and looked at our hands first: if we didn’t have wounds, it meant we were stealing. If we had bruises, they would leave us alone. But this still stressed us out.”
For the first three years, he worked on farms in the central Latina province. “Agriculture was the lowest paid, but at first we had nowhere to go, especially since we didn’t know the language,” he adds.
The work was hard, and semi-legal. But for someone who was only a decade out of a brutal Communist dictatorship, he didn’t expect good conditions.
In 2007, the year Romania became part of the EU, Cozachevici – who was then in construction – joined a large union, the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), and helped Romanians solve their labor problems. The biggest issues were in the south, where many worked in slave-like conditions on farms.
Slowly, Romanians began to understand their rights. “Before they hung with their heads bowed,” he says. “There are still those who work illegally, but most of them have started to realize that they also need a pension, and that they need to pay a contribution. They’ve been demanding their rights.”
Many are craftspeople who have discovered they can earn better wages for their skills in other countries. Some have returned to Romania, where they make more money than in Italy. “Others went to Germany and many to England,” he adds.
Cozachevici returned to his hometown in Suceava County, northeast Romania. In 2020 he ran for mayor and came in second, and started working with the General Federation of Family Trade Unions. He believes that Romanians must wise-up to their rights. For two decades in Italy, they have experienced a generation of exploitation.
And they’ve had enough.
“Exploitation happens in all the areas where Romanians work”
Camelia Cutolo is a lawyer from Romania, who settled in Italy 17 years ago. She has her own office in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, in the south. Every year, she deals with up to 40 labor-related cases, many involving Romanians.
“Exploitation happens in all the areas where Romanians work,” she says.
In agriculture, the problems are mainly related to overtime and a lack of payment. “An employee can work, by law, only six and a half hours,” she says, “But people work from eight to 16 hours a day.”
In summer, a working day starts at five in the morning, and in winter, at seven, says vineyard worker Ciprian. After a lunch break, work continues into the evening for the mostly foreign laborers. “After six hours, they come home, rest, take a shower. If they want, they can go and continue in the afternoon for another three hours.”
In Cerignola there is no end to the agricultural season. When we meet, at the end of September, Ciprian has finished picking tomatoes. The grapes are ripening, and the olive harvest is about to begin. Immediately after Christmas comes the cleaning of the vineyards, the tying of the grapevines and the digging of the land. Then it’s time to pick the artichokes.
In his first years in Italy, it was difficult for Ciprian to adjust. More complicated than the tough pace of work and the new language was the distrust of Italian employers. He shared a house with 15 other workers, and couldn’t get his own place, as many Italians were afraid to rent to Romanians.
He couldn’t even count on his own countrymen. Romanian ‘gangmasters’ appeared as intermediaries between the employers and the employees, who exploited their compatriots for the Italian bosses. They found jobs for men like Ciprian, and drove them to the fields to pick fruit and vegetables, while taking a large share of the day’s wages from the laborers.
Sometimes the gangmasters didn’t pay Ciprian. He remembers that one day an intermediary who found him a job told him that the boss had not handed him the 60 euros he earned. The gangmaster was lying. He didn’t want to give Ciprian the money.
“When we asked to be paid, our bosses drove us to a field in the middle of nowhere, and left us there”
Other Romanians suffered worse experiences. Maria N. is from Iași County in northeast Romania, and came to Italy in 2008. After working for three years as a carer in an old people’s home, she wanted a job alongside her husband. Together, they worked on a farm in Foggia, near Cerignola. When they arrived, the employer took their IDs, saying he needed them to draw up the employment contracts. Maria and her husband had to weed onion plants for 2.5 euros per hour. They stayed in a garage with three other Romanians.
They started work at six in the morning, and until one in the afternoon they had to work without a break, and did not receive any water. They continued until about ten pm. “We were being watched,” says Maria. “If we stopped for five minutes, or even shaked hands, the [bosses] would drive over in their cars and force us to keep working. (…) If the rain fell, it didn’t matter, we had to finish.” When they were not working for the farm, the owner “hired them out” to other Italian farms.
The Romanian workers only received money for necessities, once a week. After a month, when they demanded their salaries, the Italians drove them, at night, from their shoddy housing to a field in the middle of nowhere, and left them there.
In the morning, the local police – the Carabinieri – found them shivering on the grass. Only after the police intervened, did the employers agree to pay their wages.
Another problem is that Romanians experience accidents at work, but because of the precarious nature of their contracts, they receive no compensation.
Lidia and Marian Creţu are from Bacău and live with their three children in Cerignola. Marian remembers his first year in Italy. “I came with a friend and he left me in a cellar,” he says. “It was a single bed and I paid 100 euro a month. And I said: ‘I want a job’. Someone put me to work and said: ‘You have to give me 200 euro’.” This was the unofficial ‘fee’ to be able to work. For three months, he had no labor contract. At one point, Marian had an accident at work and could not get up for two weeks. He says he didn’t get a penny for treatment.
“Low Wages for Romanians are Key to Low Prices in Shops”
Poor salaries that Romanians receive from Italian farmers are often the key to the low prices on supermarket shelves, says Emilia Bartoli Spurcaciu, who represents INCA Romania, a branch of a large trade union in Italy. “It’s also social dumping,” she adds.
Italian farmers could not be so competitive at a European level if they had to pay €52 to a worker for six and a half hours of work, plus taxes. So many bypass the legal forms of hiring, leaving workers with few benefits. Spurcaciu tries to help Romanians who have worked or are working in Italy to understand their rights, including after they’ve returned home.
In 2016, Italians stepped up the fight against gangmasters, when it passed a law that provided harsh penalties for those involved: the arrest of anyone caught in the middle of a crime, the confiscation of a guilty company’s property and criminal fines. For many farmers, however, it is a system they find it hard to abandon, especially when they need seasonal workers.
“When the fruits are ripe and have to be gathered in a few days, there is a great need for hundreds of workers for a short period of time,” says Spurcaciu. “The state fails to create an environment that allows supply to meet demand legally.”
Exploitation in agriculture can also take the form of sexual abuse. Letizia Palumbo is a researcher at the Florence-based Migration Policy Center, who has been studying exploitation of foreign workers in Sicily for ten years. One of her areas of interest is women in the Ragusa region, where thousands of mobile workers labor in greenhouses, picking fruit and vegetables.
“[Unlike men], with women we have a case of double-exploitation, sexual and labour exploitation,” she explains.
Responsibility for the family has played a crucial role in the dynamics of mistreatment, says Palumbo. Many women who work in Ragusa bring their children from Romania to stay with them in the greenhouses.
“There have been many cases where abusive employers have used children to threaten women or to exacerbate their vulnerability to exploitation,” she adds.
One of the dramatic stories she collected is of a single woman with two children, who lived with her on the farm, in an isolated area.
“There was no transport. They were without anything. In the middle of nowhere. These two children needed and wanted to go to school, so the employer offered to take them to school by car, but the way he was driving them to school became a way to blackmail the woman into sexual abuse. In the beginning she accepted this situation because she realized she didn’t have any other alternatives, but when she understood that this was too much, she tried to escape.
“But the reaction of the employers was very violent, and they decided not to give water and food to the family. Then she was able to escape and reach a local NGO.”
New trend: Romanians living in Italy, and working in north Europe
Lately, Romanians who lacked social justice in Italy began to look for a better life elsewhere. Some used their time in Italy to gain skills and knowledge to help them become their own bosses, giving them independence and flexibility in terms of where they can go. Many who used to live in Cerignola are now in England or Germany, says Ciprian Dumbravă.
Increasingly, Romanians work for a season in northern European countries and come back to Italy, where they have more family and friends than in Romania. Where they end up, they find better working conditions and a more generous benefits system.
“Of course everyone goes where it’s best for them,” says Dumbravă.
In their absence, the need for labor in Cerignola and nearby towns is high. Local farmers are trying to cover it with the help of African workers, who arrive by sea. Many don’t have a legal status, and live in shanty huts.
One of the camps is near Borgo Mezzanone, on the site of a former airport. About 1,500 people live here. Along a track are barracks, caravans and tents, mostly inhabited by young men from Senegal, Mali or Gambia. Some buildings have been turned into shops, and makeshift bars and restaurants, where potential customers are tempted by baked lamb heads in aluminum foil.
Reggae bursts from the speakers. In the evening, there are six Africans sitting here, returning from picking tomatoes in the fields around Foggia.
The departure of the Romanians changes the balance of power between farmers and workers.
Romanians were often more open to exploitation, because they could legally work in Italy, unlike many Africans.
“It’s been less risky and dangerous for employers to employ EU citizens in an irregular way, than non-EU migrants, and undocumented migrants,” says Palumbo.
This was because employers couldn’t be fined or prosecuted for employing Romanians, as they had the right to work in Italy.
Therefore unhappy employees had to prove exploitation to the police to claim their rights.
The temporary nature of Romanians’ relationship with Italy also increased their chances of mistreatment.
“In most of the cases of Romanians, their idea is: we move to Sicily, stay there for two for three years, collect money and then go back home to build our house in Romania,” says Palumbo. “So that means they are more willing to accept substandard working conditions, because they know it is a temporary period, and also to invest in terms of long-term social inclusion is less important, precisely because they know they are going back to their country of origin.”
For Africans, the departure of Romanians can be good news.
At a local organic vineyard near Cerignola, Africans and Italians work together. Here we meet Alex from Senegal, who started working in agriculture after he made a living selling fake goods in the town. Once the police arrested him, he quit crime.
“It was good money, but too risky,” he says. “Then I started in agriculture, which was less money, but it’s ok.”
When I tell one of the Italian workers that I’m Romanian, he starts laughing and tells me that he knows a Romanian word: “Maimuța” (which means monkey).
This is what Romanians useds to call Alex when they worked together.
Suddenly the Italian turns to the Senegalese, and teases him, calling out: “Maimuța! Maimuța!”
Alex laughs, but it’s clear he is embarrassed by this racist insult.
But all the Romanians have gone from the vineyard, so there is no one left to call the African workers ‘Maimuța’.
Only the nickname sticks in the memory.
Additional reporting by Paolo Riva and Michael Bird
Opening picture by Andrei Cotrut
The production of this article was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund