Six years as a slave: Indian farm workers exploited in Italy

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Sabaudia (Italy) (AFP)

When Balbir Singh refers to his ordeal, he uses the Italian word “macello”, which roughly translates to “mess” – but that hardly suffices to express what the migrant Indian farm worker endured.

For six years he lived in what can only be described as conditions of slavery in the province of Latina, a rural area south of Rome that is home to tens of thousands of Indian migrant workers like him.

“I worked 12 to 13 hours a day, including Sundays, with no holidays, no rest,” Singh told AFP.

The farm owner paid him 100 to 150 euros ($ 120 to $ 175) a month, he said, which comes to less than 50 cents an hour.

The legal minimum for agricultural workers is around 10 euros per hour.

Singh was rescued by a police raid on March 17, 2017 after asking for help via Facebook and WhatsApp from leaders of the local Indian community and an Italian human rights activist.

Officers found him living in a trailer, without gas, hot water or electricity, and eating the leftovers his boss threw in the trash or gave to chickens and pigs.

Singh was to wash in the stables, with the same garden hose he used to clean the cattle, and it was made clear to him that he was not to complain.

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“When I found a lawyer willing to help me, (the owner) told me … ‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to dig a hole, I’m going to throw you in and fill it up’ … gun , I saw it, ”he recalls.

Singh said he had been repeatedly beaten and had his identity papers confiscated.

His former employer is now on trial for labor exploitation, while Singh lives in a secret location for fear of reprisal.

– Brutal exploitation –

Singh’s story is extreme, but it fits into a larger picture of the brutal exploitation of migrant farm workers in Agro Pontino – the Pontine marshes, the plain around Latina – and elsewhere in Italy.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery estimated in 2018 that more than 400,000 agricultural workers in Italy were at risk of exploitation and that nearly 100,000 would likely face “inhuman conditions”.

Last month, a 27-year-old Malian collapsed and died in the south-eastern region of Puglia after working a day in the fields in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

In Agro Pontino, a major hub for greenhouse cultivation, floriculture and the production of buffalo mozzarella, Indians have been present since the mid-1980s.

They work on land drained from swamps in the 1930s, one of the largest public works projects adopted under dictator Benito Mussolini.

Sociologist Marco Omizzolo, the rights activist who helped free Singh, says that between 25,000 and 30,000 Indians live in Agro Pontino, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab region.

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In an illegal but well-established system, they live under the thumb of the “caporali”, the gangmasters who recruit agricultural workers on behalf of the landowners.

Typically, they are offered contracts, but are then only paid for a fraction of their work.

“You can work 28 days, but they will only mark four on your payslip, so at the end of the month you could get 200,300 euros,” Omizzolo told AFP.

“Formally, everything is in accordance with the book,” he added.

The reality is much darker, as shown by a recent police investigation that offered new evidence of widespread opioid abuse in the Indian community.

This operation led to the arrest of a doctor in the seaside town of Sabaudia. He was accused of illegally prescribing more than 1,500 cans of Depalgos, a powerful pain reliever containing Oxycodone and administered to cancer patients, to 222 Indian farm workers.

“The drug likely allowed them to work longer in the fields by relieving pain and fatigue,” Latina Attorney General Giuseppe De Falco told AFP.

– “Fight for rights” –

The problem of the exploitation of agricultural workers has not gone unnoticed in Parliament. It was under an anti-corporali law passed in 2016 that Singh’s employer was prosecuted.

But unions say there are still too few labor controls and inspectors to properly enforce the law.

Sociologist Omizzolo, who works with think tank Eurispes, has spent years researching agricultural labor abuses in the Latina region, some of which are undercover.

He lived for three months in Bella Farnia, a village mostly occupied by Indians, working incognito in the fields.

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He too now lives under police protection, after several death threats.

In 2019, he was knighted by President Sergio Mattarella in recognition of his “courageous work”.

In 2016, the sociologist contributed, with the Flai Cgil union, to the organization of the very first strike of Indian workers at Agro Pontino.

Since then, their hourly wages have dropped from three euros or less an hour to around five euros, although this is still only half of the legal minimum.

Omizzolo recognizes that working conditions are still far from ideal. But the protest, he said, made Indians understand that “it is worth fighting for your rights.”

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