Society

Italy: Child labour re-emerges in Naples

30 March 2012
Le Monde Paris

Naples. A 12-year-old in the garage where he works.
Naples. A 12-year-old in the garage where he works.

In one of Europe’s poorest cities, thousands of children are leaving school to help their families make ends meet. Part of a trend that has been accentuated by the crisis, they find work in the black economy or they are recruited for sinister purposes by the mafia. (Extracts.)

7 a.m. in San Lorenzo in the heart of Naples: the kid is struggling to carry a heavy crate of canned goods through a humid labyrinth of city streets. Dressed in his faded overalls, hoodie and and busted trainers, little Gennaro has already begun his day at work. 

No one is surprised to see him slaving away at such an early hour. In September 2011, Gennaro found work in a grocery shop. On the job six days a week and 10 hours a day, he stocks shelves, unloads orders and delivers shopping to customers in the neighbourhood. 

Gennaro dreamed of becoming a computer programmer, now he is a shop assistant – the most common profession  for Neopolitan child workers. He is paid in cash, earning less than a euro an hour. In a good week he can expect to take home 50 euros. Gennaro has just turned fourteen.

Gennaro’s mother, Paola Rescigno, never thought there would come a day when she would deprive her son of school. For 20 years, she and her husband lived in a 35-square-metre flat that gave onto an interior courtyard in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood, the most densely populated area in the city centre. 

Then the father died, carried off by a sudden and virulent cancer, and Paola Rescigno was forced to live from hand to mouth. She organised a micro-company offering cleaning services, which nets her and some of the other unemployed women in her neighbourhood 45 euro cents an hour, or 35 euros a week – significantly less than the wage brought home by her son.

At age 10, the children work ten hours a day

She is the one who wakes Gennaro at dawn every morning so that he will arrive on time at the grocery. His younger sister is only six, and difficult choices had to be made: "I don’t have the means to buy books for both of them. It was either one or the other." On the kitchen table, there is an “8-day loaf”: 3 kilogrammes of bland long-lasting rye bread, a throwback to the post-WWII Italian famine, which costs only five euros.

In Naples, thousands of children like Gennaro have been forced to work. In 2011, a local government report sounded the alarm on the surrounding Campania region, where more than 54,000 children left the education system between 2005 and 2009 – 38% of them were less than 13 years old.

Shop assistants, waiters, occasional delivery boys, apprentice hairdressers, shop floor hands in the back country tanneries and big brand leather workshops, gofers for market stall holders: they are plainly visible, clearly working, and hardly anyone seems to mind. "Of course, we were the poorest region in Italy. But we haven’t seen a situation like this since the end of the Second World War," says Naples deputy mayor Sergio d'Angelo. "At age 10, these kids are already working 12 hours a day, which is a clear breach of their right to development." The parents, who have put themselves in an illegal position, have to contend with the possibility that social services may place their children in foster homes.

The Italian economic crisis has played a major role in all of this. Since 2008, a succession of financial reforms have introduced drastic cuts. In June 2010, the Campania region put an end to its minimum welfare scheme, plunging more than 130,000 families into poverty.

At the time, the average income in the region was 633 euros per inhabitant: today, half of the region’s residents believe they are worse off. "The younger generation has been obliged to suffer the entire weight of the worst economic crisis in the post-war period," says Sergio d'Angelo.

"A state that abandons its children"

In Naples, the vast majority of children from poor families are faced with a choice between struggling to stay in school or dropping out to work in the black economy. Then there is a third option, which is to join the ranks of the Camorra, the Neopolitan mafia. Specialist educator Giovanni Savino, age 33, has devoted his life to preventing young people from opting for this most brutal choice. His home turf is one of Naples worst neighbourhoods: Barra, a decayed highrise area of the city which is now an openair drugs supermarket under the control of the Camorra  clans.

Every week, Giovanni Savino visits Rodino secondary school, located at the centre of one of the suburb’s housing projects, where drug trafficking is a major business and one in every two children is out of school for more than 100 days per year. 

By law, absences of more than 60 days should automatically lead to expulsion. For Savino, each case is a race against the clock. Every week, the school’s head teacher, Annunziata Martire, gives him a list of absentees, for whom he must find a solution within ten days before their files are referred to social services. 

More often than not, he encourages his charges to sit state exams as external candidates to ensure that they are not taken away from their families and placed in foster homes.

Local government officials are afraid to enter the area’s tower blocks, and there are very few educators like Giovanni Savino who are able to enter Barra. 

At the head of an association called Il Tappeto di Iqbal, "Iqbal’s carpet", named after a Pakistani child-slave who led a revolt and was subsequently murdered, Giovanni Savino has angry words for the mafia, a failing education system, and a state "which abandons its children." In Italy, there is no automatic access to benefits. Support for the young people and their families is distributed by 150 associations, which are wholly dependent on local government financing.

Since the onset of the crisis, funding for such initiatives has been cut by 87 %: and the 20,000 educators in the Campania region, who have not been paid for two years, have to rely on their own resources to do their work. If no alternative funding is found, Il Tappeto di Iqbal will soon be forced to close down. 

"Don't tell mum I have a knife"

It is a situation that is all the more lamentable when you consider the dozens of Barra children whom Giovanni Savino has rescued unscrupulous employers and the clutches of mafia clans eager to recruit future soldiers.

Carlo was one of his first successes. At age 13, the already tattooed child-killer was a seasoned extortionist, thief and knife wielding enforcer for the Aprea clan. Four years later, Carlo is now Giovanni Savino’s unshakably loyal righthand man: "He is not happy just to have you sit the school diploma exam. Once he has you, he doesn’t let go. He saved my life." 

After Carlo came Marco, a 12-year-old cocaine addict and  seasoned pickpocket, and Ciro, a promising student who gave up his studies when his family fell into the hands of mafia loan sharks.

Giovanni Savino refers to his most recent recruit, Pasquale, as one of his greatest challenges thus far. Nine months ago when he first took the 11-year-old under his wing, Pasquale was malnourished truant. To help his family, the freckle faced child who is only 1.30 metres tall, unloaded boxes in a supermarket by day, and spent his nights stealing copper from waste disposal facilities and Trenitalia depots. "You take the wire, you burn it like that, then you cut to make a ball," he says authoritatively. 

Then he is seized by doubt: "Just don’t tell my mother that I have a knife?" In Barra, where the business is managed by children, copper and aluminium sell for around 20 euros a kilo. When you ask Pasquale what he wants to do when he grows up, he suddenly falls silent. Then he sighs: "I’ll do what I can."

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

Factual or translation error? Tell us.