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Project August 23, 2022

The Dark Side of Italy's Rubber Valley

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rubber gaskets in hand
A female worker shows the rubber gaskets that she works with. Image by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

The exploitation of foreign rural workers in Southern Italy, based on what Italians call "caporalato"—a system built upon the illegal job brokerage conducted by gangmasters—has been in the spotlight for years. However, the phenomenon does not spare the wealthy regions of the North and sectors other than agriculture—including rubber gasket manufacturing.

In the so-called “Rubber Valley,” an area stretching between the Northern Italian towns of Bergamo and Brescia, pre-pandemic data estimated that the gasket production industry generated more than 2 billion euros in revenue each year. Gaskets are used every day in cars and other vehicles, engines, piping, as well as in household appliances. But the region’s wealth has sometimes come at the expense of foreign workers' rights, especially women—and the environment.  

As some nonprofit organizations and a few reporters have denounced in recent years, local companies have often outsourced a few stages of gasket production to external contractors, who in turn may entrust the work to subcontractors—sometimes, for just a few euros per day and without an employment contract. 

The result is a pyramidal system in which foreign women are often the last link in a chain of exploitation. Over the years, the business has also left visible traces throughout the area, where lakes, streams, and parks have become rubber waste dumps in plain sight.

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