I’ve spent a few weeks of the last three summers traipsing about the major cities of Europe, drinking in the culture and civilization that I find mostly lacking in the United States. Europe’s been at this whole living/governing/being governed thing longer than we have. Its cultural centers existed before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World and centuries before the concept of America was even a gleam in the Founding Fathers’ eyes.

I also cover the European Union – its sprawling bureaucracy and courts – for Courthouse News. Though I’m no expert with my three-week vacations to the continent every year, I find they help bring a basic understanding of how the EU works to my stories. In turn, those stories shape my perspective as a traveler and give me a much-needed awareness of Europe’s intricacies.

With one laptop window open to Trenitalia’s website to book high-speed rail tickets for this year’s journey, I opened a second window to do my daily check of the European Commission’s latest news. Like all good bureaucracies, they have a report for everything – in this case, hourly labor costs for each of the currently 28 member states.

On the face of the report, Europeans are well paid. The first entry on the graph is Denmark, with an average hourly wage of over $37. Add employers’ share of social benefits and the average Dane makes about $45 an hour.

I spent a few days in Copenhagen two years ago. Beautiful, charming city. Unbelievably expensive, but the people are warm, friendly and content. Now I know why.

Going down the graph, all the usual suspects – Europe’s most expensive places to visit even with a relatively strong dollar – are represented. Belgium, Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands, all at or above the $35-per-hour mark in cash and prizes.

But the back half of the graph tells a different story of living in the European Union. Imagine working in the Czech Republic, making $11 an hour including benefits, knowing that right across the border in Germany the average worker hauls in three times that.

Go farther east and the pay gap widens. Poland, less than $9 an hour including benefits. Romania, just over $5. And at the bottom of the 28-state list: Bulgaria, with an average hourly labor cost of $4.66.

The report, compiled by the EU’s statistics agency Eurostat, includes a number of caveats. For one, it’s an estimate, based on a 2012 survey and extrapolated through a labor-cost index. It excludes government subsidies but includes things not typically added to U.S. wages, like food and drink and reimbursed expenses. It doesn’t count employees in either agriculture or the public-service sector.

But the report opened my eyes to what I’d thought was a uniquely American issue and couldn’t possibly exist (as viewed through my rose-colored American tourist’s glasses) in the utopia that is the EU: income inequity. The chasm between the haves and have nots. Someone raising three kids and trying to live on $8 dollars an hour versus, well, someone like me – who jets off to Europe for a few weeks a year and complains about my tax rate every April.

As I was writing this, our editor-in-chief sent me a link to a feature in The New York Times titled “A Woman’s Death Sorting Grapes Exposes Italy’s ‘Slavery.’” The story recounts Italy’s two-year grapple with – there’s nothing else to call it – agricultural slavery following the death of Paola Clemente, who died of a heart attack at 49 in a table-grape vineyard where she worked up to 12 hours a day.

Clemente made as little as 27 euros, after labor contractors skimmed their cut. That’s $29. A good hourly wage, you say. Except that was her take-home pay per day.

The feature notes Clemente was not alone: more than 40,000 Italian women – and thousands more migrant and seasonal laborers – are exploited by Italy’s agriculture industry.

Contractors pick up the women, in Clemente’s case at 1:30 a.m., and drive them to fields as far as 2 ½ hours away. Transportation costs are deducted from the women’s pay, which doesn’t include the hours spent traveling to the fields either. They work long days under the hot Italian sun, and the contractors pocket up to two-thirds of their pay.

If they complain, they’re fired. There are always more marginalized people to take their place, in an Italian economy that still hasn’t recovered from the fiscal meltdown and a refugee crisis that shows no signs of abating.

Clemente’s story – and the stories of the 40,000-plus like her – shocks the conscience. But growing up in and around California’s agriculture industry, and now seeing the lawsuits at Courthouse News, I know workers are exploited in this country too.

Our database tells their stories: Defendant fired farmworkers who complained about lack of water, shade and bathrooms. Defendants gave white employees better housing and working conditions than their Mexican dairy workers. Defendant overcharged farmworkers for substandard housing and made them work 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Plaintiffs worked 13-hour days six days a week and 6 hours on the seventh day, but received no overtime for any of it.

These are but a few examples, from California alone, filed in the last year. And those are the ones who dared to complain, to fight, to sue. How many others are like Clemente, afraid to complain because they can’t afford to lose even $29 a day?

Or, given the current political climate, won’t say a word because they fear complaints will lead to immigration raids and deportation?

I suppose one could take some solace in the knowledge that the European Union, with all its culture and attention to social justice, has the same ills that plague the United States. Income inequity, agricultural slavery, a burgeoning wave of nationalism with overtones of flat-out racism – the EU is, for all its sometimes righteous indignation over people’s rights, not much different than the United States.

But I don’t. We should be in a global arms race to solve our social ills, not patting ourselves on the back with the knowledge that one side of the Atlantic is better or worse or the same as the other.

Despite the dictionary definition – “an impractical scheme for social improvement” – I don’t think utopia is too much to strive for.

Or demand.


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