Deep in the Adriatic sea there is a peaceful island, beautiful just like any other: infinitely translucent sea, sailboats everywhere, tourists getting sunburnt, cicadas droning their song all day long. Nothing appears to be out of order – it is a vacationer’s paradise.
However, beneath this idyllic image lies hidden a sinister business of illegal seashell trade, surprisingly run entirely by minors. The local boy who was my contact, the 10-year old Lawrence, says that this business is bringing huge profits, but also involves extensive child labor, and is almost impossible to get out of. He himself only got out of it by virtue of turning 10 years of age the previous month. This is apparently the age limit that the bosses respect because, as Lawrence says, they are wary of the consequences of older kids’ hormones which quickly turn them into uncontrollable pubescents. So the working children are released from the business at the age of 10, and only after taking a vow of silence. Lawrence was too shy to tell me how this vow-taking can even function reliably, but he himself decided to speak to me, however, not before the many days of my persuasion and not before making sure his older brother would protect him in case he gets in danger for speaking up.
Modus operandi of the mafia-like scheme goes like this: little kids (up to 5 years of age) are employed to snorkel for shells in shallow waters; they then must give the shells to the older kids who sell them to tourists on local streets and squares; the bosses collect the money from the sales daily and only share a small fraction of it with their workers, keeping virtually all the money for themselves. The employees are kept in the business mostly by continual intimidation from the boss.
The boss is most often a local kid, usually 11 to 13 year old, with little scruple and with no parental control. After learning the trade here, bosses usually go on to pursue more serious and more lucrative gangster career paths. Lawrence recalled a story of one local seashell boss from 5 years ago who went on to become the capo of a scheme in Italy, that involves renting boats from all around the Adriatic with fake papers, and simply stealing them. He is said to be making millions now.
One tranquil evening, I was having a drink in a local café when three kids approached me. Two of them stayed in the back and nudged the little boy (who was maybe 7 or 8) to come up to me. I assume this was because he may have been the only one who spoke English. So he made another step toward me, and produced from his pocket a neat Saint James shell and shyly said: “Free”. Confused, I asked him to repeat, and he explained letter by letter: F-R-EE, from which I assumed that he must have meant “Three”. So I somewhat jokingly explained to him that “three” and “free” are far from the same, and finally politely thanked him for the offer. He then pivoted with a sigh before gasping a juicy curse in local language to his colleagues. Disappointed for not making a sale, the trio then left the café.
The picturesque Adriatic scenery hides a grim reality of
forced child labor and extortion
The following day, I took to a tiny local beach that had a nice shallow area suitable for little kids and their first attempts at swimming. It was a cute little beach, the sun was still quite high and everything appeared beautiful when these two boys (apparently, twins) of maybe 5 years of age went into the shallow water with their snorkels. At first it had looked like they were enjoying their time of childish freedom in the sea, but after a minute I realized that they were actually hunting for shells. The little boys snorkeled for a full hour in the scorching sun, only to go home with a handful of small shells. Of course, these shells were to be given to the salesmen and the eventual profit would be forwarded straight into the boss’ pocket.
Digging in deeper on this illegal trade, I decided to visit one of the selling points and get a closer picture on how it works. The stand in the village center was relatively small, but big enough for a nice display of a couple of dozen shells and, to my surprise, it was staffed by two little brothers (8 and 6) originally from USA. After breaking the ice by buying a couple of shells from them, I posed a couple of questions about the business, hoping that our conversation wouldn’t be overheard by any of the nearby adults. The older boy, Michael, told me he has been in the business for at least three years (so, since he was 5) while his brother Ethan was introduced into it last summer. Both kids were seemingly smiling and nonchalant about it all, however a couple of minutes later they revealed that they must sell at least 7 shells each day in order to stay in business. If they were to fail, the boss would give them 15 smacks with a switch, and with switches being thin and flexible (made easily from branches of tamarisk, a common local shrub), the smacks are far from pleasant even on adults’ skin, let alone on that of a child.
And this would only be the first warning. After failing to yield a satisfactory turnover for a second time, the boss would send goons to stalk the perpetrator and randomly splash him (or her; there are girls involved in the business too) with buckets of sea water, mostly to mess up their clothes or to ruin their icecream or other candy that kids, being kids, love to carry around unassumingly.
A third “foul” in a season would mean automatic exclusion from the business, which would also mean losing any chance of staying a happy social child – no child would play with them anymore in order not to be punished by the boss. This punishment – for playing with an outcast, that is – would consist of pushing the foul-maker in the sea at least once a day for a whole week, which, even with warm sea, is a hugely unpleasant experience and also one that would make their parents mad at them easily. The bosses are truly remorseless.
Selling seven shells each day may not sound like a lot, but the case of the “three” boy from the other night proves otherwise. That boy was obviously forced to go from one café to another and offer shells to random foreigners such as myself, because the local population is either already fed up with shells or they simply do not want to support this illegal activity.
One of the middlemen of the local business, the 7-year old who insisted on staying anonymous, revealed to me that the profit has recently soared. More and more wealthy tourists are coming to the island each year, and they are willing to pay ever higher prices for shells. “Three”, the price offered to me on that occasion, was actually quite low, but this is only because it was still early July and therefore – low season. For the same shell, foreign tourists would pay up to 5 or even 6 later in July or in early August.
My contact in the local police says that they know all about the seashell business and that there has indeed been a huge increase over the last couple of years. This, naturally, means more and more kids get involved in the trade, and the sinister scheme only keeps growing by the year. The police are however unable to do anything about it because parents are either oblivious of what is happening before their very eyes, or they refuse to believe that their child could ever be part of an organized crime business.
Lawrence says he is planning to start a rescue organization to help protect the kids involved in the scheme. But even with his older brother behind him, he is still scared of the backlash that this might provoke. He is also afraid the business and bosses’ ruthlessness have already gone too far to be stopped, and I am willing to believe him.
* * *
As I am about to board the ship to leave the island, I see three kids selling shells on the dock. An assortment of colorful muscles, scallops, and other pretty shells is on display and a group of freshly arrived tourists is admiring their beauty. The tourists are unready to make an immediate purchase with their hands busy with luggage, but I am sure they will come back and buy several shells each, not even knowing that all of their money will go straight to the ruthless boss, and almost none will end up in these kids’ pockets, let alone those of the poor 5-year old snorkelers’.
Such is the cruel world of the seashell trade in the Adriatic sea. The latest rumor has it that the local cartels might form an association which would then take on the big players of the Mediterranean and even beyond. As I take the final glance from the boat to the seemingly blissful Adriatic island, I find it hard to even imagine what horrors the expansion of the scheme might bring, but raising public awareness about this illegal business might be a good first step toward lifting the burden off of all those darling kids who deserve to be happy and free. Therefore I can’t but wish good luck to brave little Lawrence in his upcoming effort.
Some of the events in this story are actually true, all the names were changed, and this is indeed my attempt at mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.
All of the kids are happy and jovial little entrepreneurs.
Original concept by: Vicky Page