‘An employer? No, we have a master’: the Sikhs secretly exploited in Italy

After years of arduous, badly paid work in the fields of southern Italy, Singh reported his employer to the police. But in a country where justice moves at a glacial pace, abused migrant workers have scant incentive to come forward

by Daniela Sala and Marco Valle

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. “I am a Sikh,” says the farm worker from Punjab in northern India. “And when a Sikh takes a decision, he will go forward, no matter what.”

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.”

A view of the Pontina plain farms between the cities of Sezze and San Felice Circeo.
  • A view of the Pontina plain farms between the cities of Sezze and San Felice Circeo. No area of central Italy is more densely populated by Sikh migrant workers.

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.

J, a Sikh migrant, lays a blanket on the tractor trailer where he will load the daily harvest. Like many, he left India, where he was a cook, to seek a better life.
Boxes of pinto beans. Workers are required to produce 100 boxes a day.
The younger brother of J harvests pinto beans. He arrived in Italy against his brother’s wishes, following the dream of economic stability and wealth.
S and his colleagues harvest courgettes.

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.

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.



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