Vulnerability to Forced Labour and Trafficking: The case of Romanian women in the agricultural sector in Sicily


  • Letizia Palumbo University of Palermo
  • Alessandra Sciurba University of Palermo



labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, European Union citizen migrants, female migrants, farm workers, human trafficking, forced labour, vulnerability, Italy, Romania


This paper focuses on labour and sexual exploitation faced by Romanian female workers employed in the agricultural sector in Ragusa, Sicily, Italy. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in 2013 and 2014 with Romanian female farm workers in Ragusa, the paper identifies factors that contribute towards their vulnerability to exploitation. By paying specific attention to the experiences of women who are mothers with dependent children, we look at structural factors that increase their vulnerability and consider how this vulnerability ‘forces’ women into situations whereby they effectively accept and/or submit to abuse. We also highlight how European Union (EU) citizenship does not automatically protect migrants from such abuse. This is important because, as we argue, the mistreatment experienced by participants in this study can be regarded as cases of forced labour and trafficking, based on International Labour Organization (ILO) indicators[1] and the definition of trafficking provided by the Directive 2011/36/EU. For a long time, these cases have mostly been neglected by incompetent authorities or addressed using only repressive and assistentialist approaches. Thus, this paper also investigates the limits and potentialities of the Italian legal framework on trafficking, and the ways local institutions and organisations confront the rights violations occurring in the agricultural sector. We contend that in order to effectively counter these phenomena, labour rights measures and anti-trafficking interventions have to be combined based on a comprehensive approach aimed not only at assisting victims, but also at tackling the structural factors that create their vulnerability.

[1] ILO, ‘ILO Indicators of Forced Labour’, International Labour Office, 2012, retrieved 11 August 2015,


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Author Biographies

Letizia Palumbo, University of Palermo

Letizia Palumbo is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Comparative Law at the University of Palermo, Italy. She is also Research Assistant in the project ‘Addressing Demand in Anti-Trafficking Efforts and Policies’ at the European University Institute, in Florence, Italy. Her research interests include human trafficking, migration, labour exploitation, human rights and women’s rights. At present, she is conducting research on trafficking for labour exploitation in the European Union. She has been a visiting fellow at a number of international universities, including the Columbia Law School, New York, United States of America (US); the Fordham Law School, US; and the Birkbeck School of Law, United Kingdom. She also serves as a trainer on trafficking issues. Email:

Alessandra Sciurba, University of Palermo

Alessandra Sciurba is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Sociology at the University of Palermo, Italy. She has been researching migration for many years and from an interdisciplinary perspective, with a focus on human rights, citizenship and exploitation. Her current research focuses on female migration and exploitation in domestic and care work. In 2010 she was Project Manager and from 2011 to 2013 she was consultant at the Council of Europe for the project ‘Human Rights of People Experiencing Poverty’. She has published widely on migration, including the book Campi di ForzaPercorsi confinati di migranti in Europa (2009), and, from a gendered persepective, La cura servile, la cura che serve, (2015). Email:




How to Cite

Palumbo, L., & Sciurba, A. (2015). Vulnerability to Forced Labour and Trafficking: The case of Romanian women in the agricultural sector in Sicily. Anti-Trafficking Review, (5).