Indian workers face brutal exploitation in Italian farms
Balbir Singh who denounced his corporals sits on a bed in his house in the coastal city of Sabaudia, South of Rome on June 24, 2021. (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)
INDIAN farmworkers are being exploited in large numbers in farms in Italy, reports revealed.
The latest example is Balbir Singh who lived in slave-like conditions for six years tending cattle in the province of Latina, a rural area south of Rome.
“I was working 12-13 hours a day, including Sundays, with no holidays, no rest,” said Singh.
The farm owner paid him 100 to 150 euros ($120 to $175) a month, he said, which amounts to less than 50 cents an hour. The legal minimum for farmworkers is around 10 euros an hour.
He was rescued by a police raid on March 17, 2017, after appealing for help via Facebook and WhatsApp to local Indian community leaders and an Italian rights activist.
Officers found him living in a caravan, with no gas, hot water or electricity and eating the leftovers that his boss either threw in the bin or gave to chickens and pigs.
Singh had to wash in the stables, with the same hosepipe he used to clean cattle.
“When I found a lawyer ready to help me, (the owner) told me… ‘I’ll kill you, I’ll dig a hole, throw you in it, and fill it up’… he had a gun, I saw it,” he recalled.
His former employer is now on trial for labour exploitation, while Singh is living in a secret location for fear of retribution.
Last month, a 27-year-old from Mali collapsed and died in the southeastern Apulia region after working a day in the fields in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
In the Agro Pontino, a major hub for greenhouse farming, floriculture and buffalo mozzarella production, Indians have been a presence since the mid-1980s.
Sociologist Marco Omizzolo, the rights activist who helped free Singh, has said that between 25,000 and 30,000 Indians live in the Agro Pontino, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab region.
Under an illegal but well-established system, they live under the thumb of “Caporali”, the gangmasters who recruit farm labourers on behalf of landowners.
Typically, they are offered contracts but then are paid for only a fraction of their work.
“You may work 28 days, but they’ll mark only four on your payslip, so at the end of the month you may get 200, 300 euros,” said Omizzolo, who works with the Eurispes think tank, spent years researching farm labour abuse in the Latina area — some of it undercover.
In 2019, he was given a knighthood by President Sergio Mattarella in recognition of his “courageous work”.
In 2016, the sociologist was instrumental, along with the Flai Cgil trade union, in organising the first-ever strike of the Agro Pontino’s Indian workers.
Since then, their hourly pay has risen from three euros or less per hour to around five euros — although this is still only half the legal minimum.
The problem of exploitation of farmworkers has not gone unnoticed in parliament. It was under an anti-Caporali law passed in 2016 that Singh’s employer was prosecuted.
But unions say there are still too few checks and labour inspectors to enforce the law properly.
According to reports, there is also widespread opioid abuse among the Indian community.
A doctor in the beach town of Sabaudia was arrested recently. He was accused of illegally prescribing more than 1,500 boxes of Depalgos, a powerful painkiller containing Oxycodone and given to cancer patients, to 222 Indian farm workers.
“The drug presumably allowed them to work longer in the fields by relieving pain and fatigue,” said Latina chief prosecutor Giuseppe De Falco.