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.
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. 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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.