A 20-year-old Pole who was freed last week from a prison-like labor camp in southern Italy said conditions there were so grim that he feared for his life from the moment he woke.
"The newspapers can never describe what we lived through," said the man, Lukasz, one of 113 Poles freed on Tuesday after Italian authorities raided places they described as forced labor camps in the Puglia region, in the far southeast, where they said they suspected torture, rape, forced prostitution and possibly killing occurred.
Italy is no stranger to the plight of immigrants, and stories of their exploitation by organized criminals are well known. But these camps involved not the usual North African immigrants but rather the citizens of another EU country, subjected to extreme brutality.
According to news briefings by the Italian and Polish police, an international criminal ring lured an estimated 1,000 Polish farm workers to Italy to labor for paltry wages in squalid conditions. The police said the ring began to operate one to two years ago.
For many of the victims, the trap was sprung when they responded to newspaper advertisements promising seasonal jobs picking fruit and vegetables. What they got was nightmarishly different.
After paying an initial travel fee of about US$190, the Poles traveled by bus to Orta Nova, Italy, where they were assigned to some five camps in the region. The Poles were forced to work 12 hours a day, and sometimes 16, picking tomatoes under the eyes of armed guards.
Their promised pay of US$6.25 to US$9 an hour was reduced to US$1.25 to US$3.75 an hour, half the legal rate, according to police reports. But deductions for their bread, water and sleeping quarters left many with nothing and others in debt. Anyone unable to work because of sickness was docked US$25 a day.
"People were not only exploited for their work but also kept in a state of slavery," Italy's national anti-Mafia prosecutor, Piero Grasso, told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday in Bari.
Workers were held in rooms without heat, light or gas and were watched by guards, even at night, the police and prosecutors said.
At his camp near Orta Nova, Lukasz said, he slept on a mattress on the floor among mice and cockroaches amid an unyielding stench.
"We were treated worse than animals," he said.
According to an Italian prosecutor whose office worked with Polish authorities on the investigation, beatings occurred regularly in the camps, and at least one case in which a rape is suspected to have occurred is being investigated.
Investigators are continuing to interview workers. Italian and Polish news media reported that the tools of intimidation the guards used included guns, metal batons, electric Taser sticks and dogs.
A spokesman at the Polish embassy in Rome said that at least four workers appeared to have committed suicide in the camps, but their deaths were being investigated by Italian authorities because of suspicious circumstances.
"The Italian authorities have some doubts, and they want to investigate deeper," Wojciech Unolt, the spokesman, said.
An Italian prosecutor working on the case said that 27 people had been arrested, including Poles, Ukrainians, an Algerian and an Italian. An additional seven are being sought.
Coincidentally, Italy announced on Friday that it would lift restrictions on workers from eight new EU member states in Eastern Europe, including Poland, who are seeking work in Italy.
The other seven countries are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia.
Lukasz, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal, spoke through an interpreter in a telephone interview hours before he was to leave Bari, a port city, to return to Poland.
Unlike many of the workers, he was at the camp only 10 days. He said he had spent more than US$500 and in the end had received nothing.
He said the supervisor of his work group was armed and often threatened them. And he said he had heard stories of workers disappearing.
When asked why he did not try to escape, he chuckled.
"If I would have had the money, I would have," he said. "But I didn't have any way to get back."
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