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The silent drama of Indian migrant farmers in Italy: ‘We are living a second hell on earth we never imagined’

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This is a couple of years old but I still think we need to share (and possibly discuss) it:

The silent drama of Indian migrant farmers in Italy: ‘We are living a second hell on earth we never imagined’

A SLAVE to the mafia, a man’s treacherous six-month journey to a new life turned sour after he discovered he was living in another “hell”.


AS THE bodies began to pile up on the wobbly train, they were simply thrown out of the carriage.

When Rajinder Singh, a Sikh farmer from Punjab, decided to flee India, he never realised his journey would entail a treacherous six-month journey to reach Italy.

After the train ride in which he crossed India with a bunch of other desperate refugees, he walked across Russia, Germany and France.

When he finally reached Italy, he found himself in another “hell”, where he now lives in inhumane conditions and is exploited by cruel landlords linked to powerful local mafia clans.

Today Rajinder, 42, is a farmer who lives inside a Sikh refugee camp south of Rome, in the fertile Agro Pontine plains where one of Italy’s largest Sikh communities resides.

He works in the fields looking after the kiwi, melons and zucchini plantations for just 2 euros a day, bent on his knees under the scorching sun and without even a lunch break.

“I paid so much for the journey to Italy (almost AU$15,000), I would have never thought of finding such a situation here, of living again in a nightmare.

“My master hasn’t been paying me since four months. But I have no choice: I keep working 12 hours a day non-stop because that’s the only way to avoid feeling hunger at work”, Rajinder told news.com.au.

Over 200,000 Sikh migrants reach Europe each year. Roughly 70,000 choose Italy as their final destination and their numbers are growing, with an annual 66 per cent average rise in incoming young Indians from Punjab.


From faraway, Italy appears as El Dorado, but once these immigrants set foot on Italy’s shores. reality kicks-in, and it’s a monstrous one for many Sikhs.

The Sikh drama is just a snapshot of the bigger migrant picture but is symbolic of what happens to many refugees once they reach Europe and try to start a new life.

Italy is currently being rocked by a severe immigration emergency and is the most battered of all European countries after migrant inflows in Greece recently slowed down. Since the start of the year, more than 131,000 migrants have landed on Italian shores, according to the UN refugee agency.

More than 30,000 Sikh farmers are employed in agriculture and industrial livestock in the Agro Pontine plains, a former marshland dubbed today “Italy’s greenhouse” where mafia clans control prosperous rural markets.

It’s thanks to Sikhs’ hard work that lands many fruits and veggies on Italian families’ tables as Italy faces a lack of native labourers who simply refuse to become farmers or shepherds for a miserable wage.

Yet the majority of Sikhs in the area are going through their own inferno. Their “Italian lifestyle” is certainly not what they had imagined when they first hit the road fleeing their poor and wretched country in search of a brighter future in Italy.

But not all are lucky when starting over a new life, many of them get to endure a second hell on earth. Their journey of hope isn’t realised if they fall into the hands of criminal groups, who also allegedly drug the migrants to force them to work more.



Sikh farmers live in cramped refugee camps where several families share a single 40 square meter room for which they must also pay up to 500 euros per month to cruel tenants.

Others sleep in shacks out in the open on the plantations owned by landlords while the most desperate don’t even have a roof above their heads.

To find work, they come knocking in vain at the door of land owners and must run for their lives when the dogs chase them away.

Some are official, others are illegal Sikh migrants who have never filed asylum requests to Italian authorities, practically “ghosts” who are more easy to exploit.

The lucky ones move around on a rusty bike constantly at the mercy of crazy drivers but most of them must walk up to 40km each day looking for a wage.

“We’re not even given farming tools, we need to dig the watermelons and zucchini out with our bare hands and when I come back home at night at 10pm, dogs attack me along the road. Sometimes, drivers that pass by roll down the window and throw glass bottles at us as we ride on our bikes. Each day, our lives are at stake: cars run so fast, we could get easily killed any moment”, says Jagjit Singh.


The Sikh farmers, thanks to their familiarity with cows back in India, also look after the greyish buffaloes that graze the lakesides and lend a hand in making fresh cheese.

If you visit the area, you can see at them work on the plantations even when it rains, dressed in white tunics and wearing their traditional red turban, with long moustaches and beards. Farmers’ stands rise along the streets where Sikh farmers serve clients.

They live in a total state of submission.

“I have witnessed these farmers call their employer ‘master’ and are forced to bow when he passes by, taking a step backward in a sign of fear and respect,” says local sociologist Marzo Omizzolo, runner of a local migrant support centre who faked himself as a refugee to infiltrate the plains’ rural business and report the ongoing exploitation.

According to Omizzolo, other unscrupulous Sikhs have teamed up with the land owners and created a human smuggling network to recruit fellow Indian workers inside the so-called illegal “black labour market”.

Sikhs are exploited not just in farms but also firms, where they are underpaid and work amid poor safety conditions. Several local steel industries pay their salaries late, or forget even to pay, so more and more Sikh workers have joined forces helped by Omizzolo’s organisation. They now stage regular strikes calling for more workers’ rights and higher wages.

“All we want is to be treated with dignity and respect, we want to work here in Italy but have families to look after. We’re just asking to get fairly paid for the job we do each day”, says Gurmukh Sikh, head of the local Indian community.


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  • 4 years later...


Kiwis are my slavery — the hellish life of a Sikh labourer in Italy


LATINA, ITALY, 28. JUN, 06:56

The Pontine Plains are a fertile, sunny patch of land south of Rome where exploited Indian migrant labourers pick premium kiwis that are exported across Europe.

Italy is the world's second top producer of kiwis and this area is also home to one of Europe's largest Sikh communities. With their traditional red turbans and long beards, the men tend to the fields year-round. 

Deep Singh, a 40-year old fruit picker from the Punjab region in India, thought his worst nightmares were over when he succeeded in leaving his country and landing in Italy. But he was wrong. Since the past 13 years he has been living a hellish life under the authority of several landlords. 

He works 12 hours per day, every day, without a single day off, for just €3 per hour, but at the end of the month he gets paid for only 12 days' work. That's barely €400 a month. 

"A Russian human trafficker brought me to Italy after a horrible, long trip inside a truck with other refugees. Our only food and water were the plants we tore from outside the window and the ice formed on the glass," Singh told EUobserver.

"I endured all that because I was coming to Italy, where I thought I could work peacefully", he said.

But soon he realised he had become a modern slave, and that picking kiwis was a torture. 

"For hours, I work with my arms raised high up above my head, it hurts, but I must remain silent, I can't complain because those who do are kicked out and have no means to survive. It's hell," Singh said.

This type of labour exploitation is systematic in Italy, spread from north to south. According to recent data there are over 400,000 exploited migrant fruit and vegetables pickers in Italy who work without a job contract and get usually paid just €2 per hour. 

They're at the mercy of so-called 'caporali', middle-men who hire day workers for landlords — a system dubbed an "agro-mafia". 

The Piedmont region in the north of Italy, where kiwis are also grown, heavily relies on labor exploitation — in Saluzzo's fields there are over 12,000 foreign pickers — as does Sicily, Calabria and Puglia, mainly for tomatoes and oranges.

Authorities are cracking down on rural exploiters but often clash with "omertà" — or fear-induced silence in migrants who are worried of getting fired by their masters if they denounce their inhumane conditions. 

Political parties in parliament have been pushing for more regulation to protect rural workers, which prompted the government to earmark €89m in 2020-2022 to tackle labor exploitation. 

According to police data each year roughly 300 landlords in Italy face trials while 100 are arrested for exploiting at least 1,500 irregular seasonal fruit pickers, but investigations take a long time and it's hard tracking down the perpetrators. 

Susanna Cenni, deputy president of Italy's lower house agriculture commission, however, says a lot has already been done to curb the phenomenon. 

"The government's strategic 3-year roadmap has boosted controls and transparency in hiring labourers, parliament has carried out many investigations while the new post-Covid recovery plan earmarks extra resources to hire more inspectors and provide rural workers with decent homes", she said.

Meanwhile, Deep has kiwi nightmares and has come to hate those bright green berries on which his life depends. 

He says he almost broke his back loading truckloads of kiwi boxes to be shipped to Germany, England and Holland. 

"I can't stand the sight of kiwis, they're the symbol of my exploitation and pain", he said.

"Each day when I return home I'm so tired I don't even have the strength to eat dinner, I just lay down on the bed and fall asleep only to wake up early at dawn to return to the plantations", Deep said.

Medical care

Night shifts and injuries are frequent. Once he accidentally stabbed his thigh with a knife he was carrying in his pocket to cut the kiwi branches and his "master" (that's how Indian labourers call the landowners) refused to call an ambulance. 

"He just sent me away for the day, and a friend took to me the hospital. I was heavily bleeding", he said. 

When Covid broke out Deep had to buy sanitizer gel and face masks with his own money because "the master" refused to pay for them. 

Working in the fields is tough both during summer, under the sultry sun, and in winter, when temperatures drop. 

To endure the physical and psychological stress, Deep says many labourers revert to taking drugs including opium. 

"We're constantly watched by people who work for the master, they push us to hurry up, skip our lunch break, avoid talking to each other. Taking those substances can kill you, I don't do it but many of us don't have a choice. If you're not fit to work and earn money, you starve," he said.

Several Sikh labourers who are run down and killed by cars as they pedal on their bikes to work are just left in the water canals, says Deep. A few have recently committed suicide. 

According to Marco Omizzolo, sociology professor at Rome's La Sapienza university and a member of the Eurispes think-tank, over 15,000 Asian labourers are being exploited in the Pontine Plains by the rural mafia, for an annual revenue of €25 billion. 

Omizzolo has been the first to denounce their inhumane working conditions, offering legal aid and shelter through migrant support centres.

"I've lived among them, inside their shacks, and I have seen them being beaten up, their legs broken, just because they asked for a full month's pay. One master was even arrested for pointing a rifle and blade at the labourers to make them work faster," Omizzolo said.


Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.

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  • 10 months later...




Jalandhar (India) and Latina (Italy): One morning in 2009, young sociology student Marco Omizzolo was driving past the lush green fields of Lazio, Italy, when he noticed a Sikh immigrant lying injured on the road. He leapt out of his car to assist the Sikh man and in that instant, found his life’s purpose

The Sikh man was one of many immigrants from India, mainly Punjab, working at a farm in Lazio, near Rome, which is home to large agricultural farms spread over hundreds of acres and famous for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and salads. Because agriculture is so labour intensive, particularly in the harvest season, this is where the majority of Punjabi and Sikh immigrants, both men and women, are employed in Italy.

Helping the injured immigrant put Omizzolo on a path from which he has never returned. Now a researcher, journalist and social activist working for the rights of the large Punjabi migrant workforce employed by the agricultural farms of Lazio, he is considered by the immigrant community as ‘sent by God’.

“Working with them over all these years, I learned that in some cases of injury, the immigrants ended up in a coma; most of the incidents were hidden from the police; and some of the injured persons were even set on fire by criminals,” Omizzolo told The Wire over a video call from Rome. “I learnt how farm workers are systematically pushed into modern slavery and have their human and worker rights violated.”

His interactions with the Punjabi community led to the biggest strike of immigrants in the entire history of Italy on April 18, 2016.

“The strike was held in Latina and led not only by me, but also the Punjabi population and Italy’s biggest national trade union CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana Del Lavoro) or Italian General Confederation of Labour. About 5,000 Punjabi migrant workers participated in the rally,” Omizzolo said.

Defender of rights

Omizzolo’s study of Indian immigrants began in 2009 as research for his PhD. From that small beginning, he has become a globally recognised expert on immigration.

One of the founders of In Migrazione, an organisation that makes migrant workers aware of their rights, Omizzolo helps them organise and fight for these rights and gives them the legal support they might need. He has written numerous books and national and international essays on the subject and is an adjunct professor at the University Sapienza of Rome, teaching the sociopolitical implications of migrations.


He is also a Eurispes researcher, the president of the Tempi Moderni Centre for political studies and a Knight of the Italian Republic. He is a visiting professor at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar, both in Punjab, India.

Omizzolo’s PhD from the University of Florence was based on his study of the Indian Sikh community in the province of Latina, Italy. His research focused on the Italian, Indian and foreign mafias, the caporalato or gangmasters, the agrimafia and the ecomafia. On one occasion, he worked undercover for several months as a labourer in the fields of Italy and India while tracking an Indian human trafficker.

In 2018, Omizzolo received the honour of Cavalier of the Italian Republic from the President of Italy for exposing crimes against humanity. He has been recognised by the UN as a human rights defender and in 2020, he was nominated for UNESCO’s biennial Madanjeet Singh Prize for his research on the exploitation of Indian labourers in Italy.4




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The NRI Sangat everywhere need to establish personal, Gurudwara and Jatha farmland. Where we can relocate our fellows. Where they spend the nicest parts of the day farming and the rest day getting certified in trades, or even better google certificates or coursera certs for tech jobs. 

Then they graduate and move out and we replace them with another family. 

But we need to relocate all the Sikh slaves throughout europe and India to better fighting grounds. ...er farming grounds. 

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