An employer? No, we have a master’ in Italy
After years of arduous, badly paid work in the fields of southern Italy, Singh reported his employer to the police. But in a country where justice moves at a glacial pace, abused migrant workers have scant incentive to come forward
by Daniela Sala and Marco Valle
Singh was full of resolve the day he walked into an Italian police station to report the abuse he was facing in the fields of southern Italy. “I am a Sikh,” says the farm worker from Punjab in northern India. “And when a Sikh takes a decision, he will go forward, no matter what.”
Singh knew the risk he was taking. A few days after his visit to the police station, he says, the threats and intimidation began in earnest. Within a week, he had lost his job and been forced to move home.
“It is not easy for us. Here, we’re foreigners,” says Singh. “I’m afraid to go back [to India] because I have nothing there. But I know what is happening to us here in Italy is wrong.”
- A view of the Pontina plain farms between the cities of Sezze and San Felice Circeo. No area of central Italy is more densely populated by Sikh migrant workers.
According to labour unions and community leaders, Italy’s largely hidden community of Sikh migrant workers – there are an estimated 10,000 officially employed on farms in Pontina alone – are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and intimidation in some of Italy’s biggest food-producing regions.
The salads, tomatoes and courgettes picked by Pontina’s Sikh farm workers are transported to one of Europe’s largest vegetable markets in Fondi, a city in Italy’s Lazio region. From there, they are sold throughout Italy and exported to other European countries.
Corruption and organised crime extend their tentacles throughout Italy’s food and farming sector, making an estimated €21.8bn (£19.3bn) in illegal profits from this area alone in 2016. Pontina is no exception. Here, many workers rely on unofficial gangmasters to find jobs in the thousands of farms scattered throughout the region. They are expected to work for far less than the official minimum wage.
After arriving in Italy from his family home in Punjab in northern India in 2008, Singh laboured 12 hours a day, six days a week on a fruit and vegetable farm in Pontina. The work was backbreaking, the wages poor – €150 a week at most – and he says his employer was violent and abusive.
- In April, roughly 2,000 Sikh workers gathered in Freedom Square, in Italy’s Latina province, to protest against their working conditions and request a minimum hourly wage of five euros – still four less than the legal minimum.
According to reports by Medu, an organisation run by Italian doctors, 43% of Sikh migrant farm workers in Italy do not speak Italian, meaning they are effectively cut off from mainstream criminal justice and support services. As well as poor pay and frequent non-payment of wages, the organisation identified serious health problems – notably chronic back injuries, overcrowded accommodation and exposure to dangerous pesticides – as routine for Italy’s Sikh farm workers.
Opioid use among Sikh workers is also spiralling: they mix opium into their chai tea every morning and take strong painkillers at night just to keep going. The problem is particularly acute among older workers, says Harbajan Ghuman, a former farm worker and Sikh community leader. Ghuman claims some farmers are supplying the drugs directly to workers to ensure their productivity doesn’t flag. “How can a 50- or 60-year-old person cope through the day otherwise?” he says.
Pino Cappucci, regional secretary of labour union Flai-CGIL, says the number of undocumented workers from northern India is also creating the conditions for mass exploitation and misery. Cappucci believes there could be up to 10,000 Sikh workers unofficially employed on farms throughout the region, all potentially vulnerable to exploitation.
Corruption and deception is trapping workers and leaving them heavily in debt. Most Sikh labourers enter on a legal seasonal working visa. Yet, according to CGIL Latina and the testimony of the workers, many pay between €7,000 and €13,000 to an Indian intermediary in Italy to obtain these documents – often with the complicity of an Italian farmer.
One such worker is Kumar, a Punjabi Sikh. For 25 years, his father worked in the Middle East to support his family. As the eldest of four siblings, when Kumar turned 18 he felt it was his turn to go abroad and find work.
- The Pontina’s Sikh community gather for an annual celebration at which people eat typical Indian dishes and attend dance shows.
His parents pawned the house and paid €13,000 for him to go to Italy and get his seasonal visa. In 2010, when his plane touched down, a car was there to meet him and drive him 45 miles south of the capital to Latina province. Since he arrived he has worked 13-hour days for about €4 an hour. He knows he isn’t earning enough, but feels unable to report his situation to the authorities for fear of being unable to work or being sent back to India. He says he finds the work humiliating.
“We do not have an employer – we have a master,” he says. “He often yells at us and, when you talk to him, you should step back and bow your head.”
- Kamal is a tailor. She lives with her uncle and aunt, who brought her with them to Italy. Among Indian migrants in Italy, 46% are women.
For Singh, the decision to go to the police came after he met social workers from In Migrazione, a workers’ cooperative.
“Before, I was blind. They told us about our rights and I woke up,” he says.
After Singh made his police report, the gangmaster who recruited and controlled the workers at farms across the region was arrested.
In April 2016, the suicide of a young greenhouse worker in Pontina led to a public demonstration. An estimated 2,000 Sikh workers took to the streets to protest against their working conditions and to request a minimum hourly wage of €5, still well under the legal minimum of €9 set by the Italian government.
Since the strike in 2016, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of workers who, like Singh, report their employers to the authorities.
“Before the strikes, we had five cases reported in 10 years. Since the strikes we’ve had more than 80,” says social worker Marco Omizzolo, who founded In Migrazione.
Yet the initial momentum has slowed, he says, partly because of the drawn-out pace of the Italian legal system, which is dissuading others from reporting their employers. Like Singh, those who do almost inevitably lose their jobs and are vulnerable to intimidation. Singh says that since filing his report he has received no support or protection from the police.
All of this makes it difficult to persuade workers to testify against their employers, says Omizzolo.
- Gurpreet and his friend show both the Italian and Indian flags after winning the first official cricket tournament set up in Pontina by local NGOs.
In October 2016, the Italian parliament passed a new law designed to deter gangmasters from recruiting and controlling seasonal workers. Police controls in the area increased, yet the police admit they are not making sufficient progress.
Three years after he walked into the police station, Singh’s case is finally making it to court. Yet for him, life has remained the same. He is currently working on another big farm in Pontina, facing the same conditions.
“Sometime I think about doing something again,” he says. “But if I am the only one to speak up, they will just send me away. If everybody was doing something together then things might change. None of us can really do anything to make things better alone.”
- K waits for his friends. He was fired from his job after joining his colleagues in requesting an increase to his meagre salary.
Names have been changed to protect identities