Exploitation in the fields: Sikh workers toil under gangmasters on Italian farms

Sikh workers who toil on Italian farms under tight control of criminal organizations have been protesting their low pay and working conditions, even though they face threats of violence.

Threat of violence means few are willing to talk about working conditions

Sikh workers toiling in fields south of Rome get just half a day off a week, with most of them spending that time in the local temple. (Submitted by Marco Omizzolo)

When most people think of the Italian Mafia, cinematic clichés of gangsters fighting turf wars on the hardscrabble streets of blighted metropolises are apt to spring to mind.

What likely doesn't is a lush expanse of Italian farmland lined with giant eucalyptus trees tended by a vast community of Sikh workers under the tight control of criminal organizations.

But an hour's drive south of Rome in the province of Latina live and toil as many as 35,000 farm labourers from Punjab, most exploited, some enslaved, say labour unions and community leaders.

They say many arrive in Italy by paying a middleman as much as $20,000 for a legal visa before falling under the harsh control of an unofficial but widespread gangmaster system known in Italy as caporalato.

The UN special rapporteur on contemporary slavery, Urmila Bhoola, described the system as putting workers under extreme forms of coercion through sexual and physical violence and forced ingestion of performance-enhancing drugs.

"The caporalato system consists not only of labour brokers who supply irregular and regular migrants to farms, but it is also said to be underpinned by a network of criminal syndicates and Mafia groups who benefit from the exploitation in slavery-like conditions of migrant workers," Bhoola wrote after visiting the area in late 2018.

Sikh workers pick vegetables for up to 14 hours a day. (Megan Williams/CBC)

The threat of violence is so strong among these fields of tomatoes, zucchini and lettuce, dilapidated greenhouses and shacks that few workers risk talking about the conditions they work under.

Gurmukh Singh, the local grocer and community organizer, is an exception.

Singh lived under the caporalato system for 14 years before saving enough money to open his small shop in Borgo Hermada, an enclave of wide roads and neglected two-storey homes just inland from the tourist town of Terracina.

Offering advice

It now serves as an informal community centre, with Sikhs dropping by for help translating a contract or advice on how to deal with a boss who threatens to take away a work permit or who deducts a week's pay if a worker misses half a day to renew a residency permit.

"We do everything in this area from planting to harvesting," says Singh, standing near a stack of honey-soaked Punjabi sweets as his wife tends the cash register. Some 30 per cent of the workers here are women.

"For Sikhs, the Earth is the mother," says Singh. "But we are punished by the bosses if we ask to be treated properly."

Gurmukh Singh runs a small grocery store in Borgo Hermada after working for 14 years under the caporali system. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Singh says for many, conditions have only slightly improved since what he experienced at age 17, some 25 years ago.

"They paid us $2 or $3 an hour. When we said we needed $5, plus boots and gloves, they threatened to take our documents away and they even beat us. I worked so hard I had to tie my legs together when I went to sleep so they wouldn't jump."

Singh Manjit stops by to pick up a few items before he heads to the fields. For the past 16 years, he's tended everything from zucchinis and radishes to eggplants and melons for just $6 an hour.

"I suffer from backaches, but I don't do drugs like a lot of the younger men do," says Manjit.

Grocery store owner Gurmukh Singh chats with farm worker Singh Manjit. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Addiction to opium, opioids, heroin and anti-spastic drugs among the Sikh workers has mushroomed in recent years, according to Sikhs, rights workers and doctors. They say many workers chew dried poppy pods, which contain low levels of morphine and codeine that can lead to addiction.

Marching in protest

To manage excruciating back pain after hours of picking watermelons weighing as much as 20 kilograms, some workers slip opium into their morning tea, with gangmasters, or caporali, forcing drug use as well, say Sikh workers.

In 2016, Singh, with the help of sociologist and fellow activist Marco Omizzolo, organized the first Sikh farm workers strike. Despite threats from bosses and fear of reprisal, 4,000 Sikhs marched through the provincial capital of Latina to protest pay and conditions.

Last September, they organized another protest where representatives from Italy's largest workers' unions joined 1,500 Sikhs.

Despite their efforts, workers continue to toil 6½ days a week, up to 14 hours a day. Italian law dictates that agricultural workers can work no more than six hours a day at $12 an hour.

Sikh workers toil in fields in Italy. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Omizzolo says there have been more than a dozen suicides among Sikh workers in the last four years and that under pressure from bosses, workers often don't report workplace accidents or, in a case earlier this year, misreport it as a "car accident."

"This area is a gigantic money-producing machine and nobody wants to stop the exploitation because the whole agro-economy it's based on would collapse," says Omizzolo, who grew up in the area.

Omizzolo took up the cause of Sikh workers after growing curious about the Sikhs he spotted pedalling along the country roads at dawn and dusk, their figures bent over in the distant fields during the long days.

Learning about their lives

He decided to work alongside them for several months to learn about their lives as part of his PhD in sociology. What he experienced turned him into an activist and taught him, he says, about how state neglect is an unofficial policy of tacit endorsement of exploitation.

"This province is very important for its agriculture for Europe. There are 10,000 agriculture co-ops here, but there are only two inspectors. Only two," he says.

"When the local bosses see their cars coming, they send a text message to the workers and everyone hops on their bicycle so when inspector arrives, he sees just two workers."

Marco Omizzolo, left, chats with a Sikh farm labourer. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Italy's infamous red tape and backlog of court cases also make criminal prosecution rare.

"There's terrible confusion about the administrative and investigative roles that waste time and resources," Italian high court judge Bruno Giordano recently told Espresso magazine.

Giordano was instrumental in pushing for a law that not only allows for the arrest of caporali, the middle-men who acquire and mistreat workers, but also the seizure of property of the co-op owners. "But to carry out a raid on just one co-op involves co-ordinating with the health department, the labour inspector, the local police and other agencies."

Omizzolo's advocating for the rights of the Sikhs earned him an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in December 2018. But it's come at a high personal price. In the past several years, he says he's had two cars destroyed and dozens of death threats. He's now under police protection.

Sikh workers find solace and solidarity in the local temple, which is housed in the back of a factory. (Megan Williams/CBC)

And it's still a challenge to encourage the young Sikh workers to stand up for their rights.

He says spending Sunday afternoons at the local Sikh temple set up in the back of an empty factory among the fields has been essential. There, hundreds of workers gather to worship and share a meal together during what for most is their only half-day off.

"One of principles of Sikhism is the equality among people," he says. "So I stress that to the young men afraid of the bosses that even those cruel bosses are equal to them. Giving that message in this religious place is what got people finally protesting."