I was listening to a feminist podcast on the subject unrelated to labor and sexual exploitation when, during the brief rundown of news at the beginning of the program, I learned that migrant Romanian women working in agriculture in Sicily were being horribly sexually exploited by their employers. Now, sexual exploitation of women within capitalism is not news to me, but this particularly situation struck me as outside the general narrative of the global North exploiting the global South. It also raised issues regarding legalized prostitution Europe, so I feel it is a situation worth highlighting.
Sicilian police believe there are about 7,500 women, the majority of whom are Romanian, living in slave conditions on farms across Sicily, but particularly in the region of Ragusa. According to the Proxyma Association, an Italian migrant rights organization, an estimated half of all Romanian women are regurlaly raped by their employers. If they try to resist against the assaults or go to the police, they could lose their jobs and even their families. Romanian husbands are sometimes complicit in these rapes by telling their wives they have no choice but to submit to their employers, and beating them if they don’t.
For Romanian women, they are trapped in two patriarchal cultures, their own Romanian culture and then Sicilian culture, a situation exacerbated by economic realities in Europe. The first economic reality is the plight of most ex-Soviet satellites in that Romania’s economy never recovered from the fall of Communism. The poverty in Romania pushes women to take and remain in abusive migrant positions as there are no other options available. The slave wages they make on Sicilian farms are more than what they can make in Romania. The second economic reality is the dynamics of the EU market economy. In order to compete with other Europeans markets, the Italian agriculture sector specifically uses migrant labor to exploit employees while making huge profits. It has worked. In recent years Italian agricultural exports have become worth about $474,000,000 in US dollars.
Romanian women are not unique in being exploited by capitalism, but it does break stereotypes in that migrants are often thought of as originating in the global South. In fact, Romanian migrants didn’t become common in Italy until about a decade ago after Italy cracked down on undocumented, illegal migrant labor, mainly from non-European countries. Italian farmers made up the loss of undocumented workers by turning to poverty-stricken EU countries such as Romania. The bounties of expoiter and the exploited were simply redrawn.
This speaks to a larger world issue in that cracking down on illegal immigrantion, specifically from developing nations of the global South, won’t prevent poverty – contrary to popular belief. This belief is especially prevelant in the US where mainly white people believe that deporting illegal immigrants, generally seen as Mexican, will bring back jobs and a middle-class lifestyle.
It won’t. Cracking down on illegal immigration won’t change the fundamental system of capitalism which thrives on the exploitation of workers – particularly women. Mexican workers can just be replaced by the poor from other regions of the world, as exemplified by the plight of Romanian women. Although there are male migrant workers being abused, sexual abuse is particularly effective in that it introduces patriarchal shame and a new level of violence to control the worker. This is very similar to the exploitation of female workers in China, Mexico, and around the world.
Capitalism needs patriarchy to survive, and patriarchy uses capitalism to remain a dominant social structure. It is a symbiotic relationship that is particularly destructive upon the lives of women.
Migrant farm work is not the only intersection of capitalism and patriarchy exploiting Romanian women. A large proportion of prostitutes in the legal prostitution markets of Germany and the Netherlands are Romanian women. According to Caritas and it’s anti-trafficking network COATNET, due to continuing economic struggles Romanian women are common targets of sex traffickers. Caritas actually goes into schools and teaches prevention to teenage girls to protect them from sexual predators. And according to Adrian Petrescu of Romania’s National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons, “Legal prostitution in other countries creates the opportunity for crime everywhere.”
Knowing that many women exploited in legalized prostitution in Germany and Netherlands are Romanian makes it pretty easy to come to the conclusion that legalizing prostitution does not prevent sex trafficking. Italy’s legal prostitution market is also a destination for trafficked Romanian women, as many prostitutes in and around Rome are Romanian. All legalizing prostitution does is create new free markets, and these markets trade in human lives.
Romania and Italy are working together to try and prevent Romanian women from being exploited, utilizing organizations such as Caritas, Italian unions, and Coldiretti (an Italian farming organization). But will it be enough to prevent not just Romanian women from being exploited but to prevent OTHER ethnicities from exploited? The problem isn’t just Romania and Italy. The problem is the global capitalist system at large. And once Romanian women are empowered, the system will just look for new populations to exploit. Particularly as prostitution remains legal and demand remains strong.