Polish labourers kept in Italian 'prison camp'.

Polish farmworkers who travelled to southern Italy were kept in a "concentration camp" where they were fed on little more than bread and water, expected to labour in the fields for up to 15 hours a day, and beaten by guards who called themselves kapos, it was revealed yesterday.

Police across Europe were hunting seven mobsters who escaped when Italian Carabinieri raided the camp at dawn on Tuesday. Sixteen others - 15 Poles and an Italian - were jailed in Italy and a further nine people were arrested in Poland as part of an extensive cross-border operation.

Prosecutors in the southern port city of Bari are looking into whether the deaths of two Poles found in the area might have been linked to the racket.

Poland's police chief, Marek Bienkowski, said: "Workers were beaten with cudgels and monitored by armed guards with dogs. Cases of rape have also come to light." He said some of the workers were forced into prostitution by the criminal gang that had lured them to Italy.

Italy's chief organised crime prosecutor, Piero Grasso, said the barracks where the workers were kept "weren't workplaces, but out and out concentration camps".

Stories of the exploitation of immigrants by organised criminals are relatively common in Italy, as they are throughout the European Union. But it is highly unusual for the victims in such cases to be the citizens of another EU country and for the alleged abuse to be so extreme.

Mr Bienkowski said: "Gangsters in Poland recruited people looking for seasonal jobs picking fruit and vegetables in Italy through announcements in local newspapers. Those who applied were charged 400-800 zlotys (68-136) for the journey, plus another 150 (102) when they reached Italy."

The Poles were bussed to Orta Nova, near the Adriatic coast. A source close to the Italian investigation told the Guardian that, in theory, they earned 3 an hour picking tomatoes. That alone was half the legal rate. But, in practice, they did not even receive that because of "deductions" imposed by their employers.

Those who went sick were docked 20 a day. "They were also obliged to pay the costs of their overnight accommodation and food," said Mr Bienkowski. "This caused most of those employed to fall into a deliberately created spiral of debt."

He said the guards referred to themselves as kapos, the name given to wartime concentration camp inmates who worked as guards. According to Polish media reports, the camp was run by three Poles, two Ukrainians and an Algerian.

The Italian source said: "The workers were not chained to their beds or anything like that, but they were kept in an isolated spot with no real chance of escape. We listened in to telephone calls they made to their relatives back in Poland in which the relatives said: 'But why don't you leave?' And they answered: 'But I don't even know where I am'."

There was no running water, no sanitation and no heating in the barracks where the workers were kept. The only bedding were mattresses spread out on the floor.

The operation that led to this week's arrests was hailed by the Italian authorities as a breakthrough in trans-European cooperation. Police and prosecutors from Krakow to Bari were involved in planning the raids.

Polish media reports said the camp operated for two years, and probably used more than 1,000 labourers.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles head west each year, escaping an unemployment rate of 16% that is the highest in the EU. Some of the workers who were freed on Tuesday were returning to Poland. But some were reported to have stayed to look for alternative work in Italy. Around 40,000 Poles work in the country legally, and at least the same number work in Italy's vast black economy.

The plight of migrant workers around Orta Nova came to light in the Polish press last year, when police freed 105 people - 90 of them Poles - from another, similar farm.

One man who returned from the area told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza: "The guards were complete bandits, tattooed everywhere, even on their faces. You could see at first glance that we were working with criminals, and they didn't even hide it. We were woken up early and taken to the fields.

"We had to pay 1.50 for the journey. We worked without a break until 9pm. If you wanted a day off you had to pay 25. We got 6-7 for filling a 200kg container with tomatoes."

[Source: The Guardian, London, UK, 20jul06]

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