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Varanasi
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Sikh slaves of Italy

About 40,000 Bhartiya (mainly Sikh) workers live and work in the Pontine, a previously marshy region that Italy’s then fascist regime drained for agriculture in the 1930s. They are the modern-day slaves, trapped in a vicious circle. Most of them work as cheap labourers and over the last decade, many have been forced to work for free. They still have not been able to pay off debts they took to pay the agents who promised good jobs and organized their travel from Bharat. They are victims of what is known as debt bondage and as per the United Nations, is the most prevalent form of modern-day slavery worldwide.

The exploitation of these labourers involves the local police, the mafia, farm owners and corporate. For all the backbreaking work, the labourers are provided no running water, gas, electricity or hot water. In many a cases they survive on the leftovers that employers throw away in the dustbin or share their food with the pigs. They are beaten mercilessly and have no documents to move to the authorities.

Italian far-right politicians want to end immigration that they often blamed for ‘crimes’. Sikh leaders in that country say that the European nation cannot manage without their cheap labor and even ask whether the Italians can work for 4 or 5 Euros an hour! This comes from someone who pays around 10 lakhs just to be on that flight to Morocco and bards unseaworthy vessels then shuttle these illegal immigrants into Italy.

In Italy, work is overseen by gangmasters, known as “Caporali” who are members of the Sikh community acting as agents between workers and employers. Many Sikh labourers enter on a legal seasonal working visa. Yet many pay between €7,000 and €13,000 to the gangmaster in Italy to obtain these documents – often with the complicity of an Italian farmer. Though illegal, this system is well entrenched in Italian economy.

Traffickers and their agents in Punjab promise work, accommodation, travel, and paperwork, essential things for those who do not speak Italian. Many Indian labourers who settled here in the last 10 years came in similar circumstances. Their documents are then seized by the agents to ensure they don’t leave until the debt is repaid.

In many farms, pickers are paid 3-5 euros an hour – well below the industry minimum wage of about 10 euros – and work without breaks in scorching summer temperatures. They work seven days a week for around 13 hours each and every day, no weekly holidays. In some cases, these wretched souls worked for less than 50 cents an hour and many died of exhaustion due to excruciating conditions. They do not have an employer, instead have a gangmaster who often yells and, when you talk to him, you should step back and bow your head!

However, on papers everything looks fine as workers are shown as having worked 4 or 5 days a month, while they worked 30 days. Essentially, they are getting wages of 4 or 5 days for work of 45 days! One day work is 8 hours and 13 hours mean they practically work 45 days in a month. 

The gangmasters recruit pickers but withhold part of their pay. Corruption and organised crime extend their tentacles throughout Italy’s food and farming sector. In Pontina many workers rely on gangmasters to find jobs in the thousands of farms scattered throughout the region. Since they do not have a choice, they agree to work for far less than the official minimum wage.

About half the Sikh migrant farmworkers in Italy do not speak Italian and are effectively cut off from the criminal justice and support services. They suffer from poor pay and frequent non-payment of wages, serious health problems – notably chronic back injuries, overcrowded accommodation, and exposure to dangerous pesticides routinely.

After years of arduous, badly paid work in the fields of southern Italy, some started reporting crimes to the police. Some had laboured for 13 hours a day, seven days a week on the fruit and vegetable farms in Pontina. The work was backbreaking, the wages were poor (€150 a week at most) and employers were violent and abusive. 

Those who complained almost invariably lost their jobs and are vulnerable to intimidation. Once they file complaints, they received no support or protection from the police. All of this makes it difficult to persuade workers to testify against their employers. Above all, Italian justice system moves at a snail’s pace. 

Last year during the lockdown the government declared amnesty and around 11000 Bhartiyas took the option and are now officially asylum seekers. That changes little since they continue to live and work there. Though an anti-Caporali law was passed in 2016 there are still few checks and insufficient labour inspectors to enforce the law properly. It is estimated that there are an estimated 4 lakh such workers in Italy and around 1 lakh live in the most unforgiving circumstances.

An increasing number of these Indian labourers reportedly take addictive drugs, including opium and heroin, to cope with the strain of the harsh physical work. Suicides are also rampant among these labourers. Rahul Gandhi is once said that in Italy the farmers are Punjabis. He was as always, dead wrong. Government should try to resolve this brewing crisis that has been hidden for so many years from mainstream discourse.


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