Shut Down Europe's Sweatshops. Now

Western Europeans take pride in the high labor standards their governments impose on employers in the workplace. Workers have greater rights and protections than in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. But a two-month BUSINESS WEEK investigation has uncovered widespread abuses in thousands of sweatshops in Italy. Illegal immigrant workers, mostly from China and Eastern Europe, work in conditions ranging from debt bondage to slave labor. The situation is totally unacceptable.

This is how it works: Criminal gangs based in China, the Balkans, the old Soviet bloc, Latin America, and Africa are recruiting desperately poor people and transporting them to Europe. The gangs lend these people thousands of dollars to pay for their trips. Many are sent to Italy under the guise of tour groups destined for Venice or Trieste. Once in the country, local gang members send the illegal immigrants into the underground economy, where they labor for years in sweatshops, working 12 to 14 hours a day to pay off their debts. Those who refuse or try to escape are hunted down, punished, or even killed.

Globalization has unleashed powerful forces into the international economy. The drive to compete and cut costs is overwhelming. The temptation to do so at the expense of workers is all the greater given the end of the cold war and the flood of illegal immigrants into labor markets in Western Europe and around the world. The twin businesses of criminal trafficking and slave labor are casting a shameful pall over 21st century Europe, particularly Italy. They must be stopped.

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