Exploitation in the photovoltaic solar panel industry: the case of Lecce and Brindisi, Apulia

A second investigation in Apulia has uncovered a system of exploitation in the industrial labour sector, in the so-called high-tech ‘green economy’ (Court of Lecce 2011). The investigation brought to light the exploitation of immigrants working in private companies. Invisible to the public, and working in fenced-off areas, the exploitation of the migrants became visible only when the workers themselves reported it to trade union officials and the police. Through research in the field, and the collection and cross-checking of evidence from different sources, it has been possible to reconstruct the mechanisms of this exploitation (Interviews conducted in Lecce with trade unions and NGOs representatives, police officers, magistrates, journalists; articles in the local press).

Information first emerged from Tunisian workers in December 2010, just few days after the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring, and indeed most likely encouraged by the stand against the abuse of human rights being taken in their home country. The workers had been employed a few months before to work on the installation of photovoltaic solar panel arrays. The company involved, Global Solar Fund, backed by the China Bank Corporation, obtained authorisation and financial support from the regional authorities to undertake the work. A Spanish company, Tecnova, was subcontracted to construct the sites. In 2010, Tecnova obtained permission to build 17 sites in Apulia, in the provinces of Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce, for which it would need at least 500 unskilled labourers to fit silicon solar panels. To build these installations, Tecnova employed hundreds of workers, mainly non-Italians, some of whom did not have residence permits, including several dozen from West Africa. Through ‘word of mouth, but also through gangmasters and intermediaries, migrant workers came to this region from all over southern Italy. The incentive was a promised salary of €1,300 a month for seven hours work a day. In order to get the job, some of the workers paid hundreds of euros to intermediaries from their own country (Court of Lecce 2011).

From the first, they discovered that the actual conditions of work were very different from those promised. After being hired on a standard employment contract for factory workers in the engineering sector, the workers saw their expectations evaporate. In spite of the contract, overtime and holidays were not paid; social security and health insurance contributions were not made; and accidents were neither prevented nor reported. Work often started at 5am when a truck took them to the various installations, the location of which they were often unaware. Usually, the working day was 12 hours, six days a week, but they were also asked to do a lot of overtime, and some days worked 18 or even 24 hours. Generally, they were allowed to rest only on Sunday afternoon. Moreover, the one-month contract signed by most of the workers was then replaced by an oral arrangement and wages of about €50 a day. Tecnova frequently did not pay the workers and flouted safety regulations. When a secretary pointed out that the size of the safety footwear was too small, he replied ‘let them cut their feet! Let them cut the front of their boots off with their feet sticking out!’ (Court of Lecce 2011: 13-20). Anyone who objected or stood up for their rights was sacked immediately. Migrant workers often received threats, and those who tried to report their employers were immediately threatened with dismissal or were sacked on the spot.

In response to the growing number of complaints being brought to the Brindisi police, an investigation was launched, including the use of telephone tapping. The investigation spread to Lecce, and trade unions also became involved in compiling evidence. The UGL trade union in Lecce discovered that the workers’ contracts were not legal having not been declared to the state social security agency; having an invalid duration of one month and having not been renewed. Workers without a residence permit had also been threatened (Interview with a trade union representative, UGL). To raise awareness, a sit-in was organised in the centre of Lecce. Meanwhile, having been formally indicted, the directors of Tecnova disappeared. It was left to the parent company, Global Solar Fund, to negotiate with the trade unions. In order to prevent the solar panel arrays being seized, compensation of €1,500 a month was offered, and the Global Solar Fund offered to pay irregular migrant workers the same amount. In all, the company paid over 450 workers a total of €500,000 to cover unpaid wages. At least 22 workers who had been exposed to violence obtained access to social assistance (Interview with a social worker, director of Associazione Libera, Lecce; Police officers in Lecce Police Headquarters).

From a criminal justice perspective, 20 managers from Tecnova were initially charged with criminal conspiracy to reduce individuals to slavery. Ultimately, the charges were altered to extortion, aggravated fraud at the expense of the State and abetting the employment of individuals without a residence permit in Italy.

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