Friday

17th Sep 2021

Feature

The exploited Sikh labourers babysitting Italy's buffalos

  • Buffalos grazing on the Pontine plain, south of Rome - their cheese retails at €15-per-kilo, but the workers caring for them are lucky to make €400 a month (Photo: Silvia Marchetti)

If you happen to visit the Pontine plain south of Rome, you'll likely see long-bearded Sikh rural migrant workers with red turbans tending buffalos and picking melons, aubergines and kiwis.

Roughly 30,000 Indian and Pakistani immigrants live in the province of Latina, the second-largest Sikh cluster in Italy.

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  • Indian rural migrant workers on the Pontine plain. In each stable, there are at least two Sikh workers. Regular workers get paid €9 gross per hour - but over 70 percent don't have a job contract and are illegal migrants, getting paid €2-€3 per hour (Photo: Marco Omizzolo)

Singh is a popular surname in the area - half work in the fertile fields and in local dairy farms to make mozzarella di bufala - premium mozzarella cheese with buffalo milk. It's a very niche product, tastier than ordinary cow's milk mozzarella, and more expensive.

Mozzarella di bufala is a top Made-in-Italy food excellence which boasts Europe's prestigious PDO status. The cost in Italy is roughly €15-per-kilo. The mozzarella made in the Pontine plain, a former marshland, is part of a consortium of mozzarella-makers stretching all the way to the region of Campania.

"They migrant workers are exploited (by landlords and dairy businessmen) like slaves. They work up to 14 hours per day, every single day non-stop without any leave time, for barely €400 per month. When they get harmed doing the job their masters hide these incidents, and often even beat them up. In the last four years, 14 Sikhs have committed suicide", says Marco Omizzolo, sociology professor at Rome's La Sapienza university and associate at the Eurispes think tank.

Omizzolo has repeatedly denounced the inhumane working conditions of Sikh farmworkers, giving them legal support and shelter through local humanitarian projects and migrant support centres.

Lawsuits

"Dozens of lawsuits against labour-abusers are still pending. The 'masters' and the caporali (the middle-men who recruit day labourers) exploit these migrants to produce top Italian goods which are exported and well known in the whole world, made by people who are trapped into slavery and often victims of violence", says Omizzolo.

Sikhs look after the grazing buffalos, feed, milk and wash the animals, and clean the stables. They also have a central role in the mozzarella business, as many have been taught how to process the buffalo milk into the delicious cheese.

Sikhs are renowned to have skills in looking after buffalos due to their traditional familiarity with cattle back home, says Omizzolo.

They have a farming and breeding background which is useful to landowners. Even if they don't worship cows like Hindus, they don't eat meat and nourish a particular respect for all life forms, he explains, especially buffalos on which they have learnt to depend for survival in India.

At dawn, Sikh migrants bike to work along dusty narrow country roads and canals. They're also employed behind the counter. Streets in the area are lined with mozzarella and fresh produce stands selling to the public.

In each stable there are at least two Sikh workers. Regular workers get paid €9 gross per hour - but over 70 percent don't have a job contract and are illegal migrants, getting paid between €2 and €3 per hour.

16-hour days

Life in the dairy farms is tough. Shifts start at 4.30am and run till 9pm, with at least three buffalo-milking sessions a day.

"In the dairy factory where I worked we made mozzarella and other cheeses. I had to do everything: milk the buffalos and cows, wash and feed the cattle and their babies. I even gave them medicines. I had a total of 67 animals to tend to each single day", says Gill Singh, 35, from India.

"I got paid just €300 per month and lived in a shack attached to the stable. That special buffalo milk has made my master very rich, he goes around in expensive cars while I lived like a slave for three whole years. It was hell, too much work. I was no longer a free man. I often thought of killing myself".

Other Sikh labourers have been forced to sleep in caravans without electricity, running water and gas. They're undernourished and often live under threat by their masters. They're forced to work even in the hottest hours of the day, without lunch break, and if they refuse they're immediately replaced by other labourers.

Babir Singh says he was often beaten up by a dairy farm owner, and the most he got paid to work 14 hours straight each day for a month was €150.

"To eat I often went searching for food in the leftovers he threw to the pigs, hens and in the rubbish. Now, thanks to Omizzolo and the police, I'm a free man but I won't give up my court battle until justice against that landlord is made".

Gill and Babir were lucky enough to get away from their hellish job and find more stable and promising occupations in the dairy sector. But many Sikh migrants fail to escape.

Mozzarella nightmares

Madanjeet Singh, 46 years-old, works at a dairy farm that produces milk, yogurt, mozzarella and other cheeses. He gets paid €350 per month.

"I work each single day, even at Christmas and Easter. For three whole years I was stuck here and couldn't go back to India to visit my family. That mozzarella became my nightmares, I hated it so much because it was the symbol of my slavery".

Madanjeet works with other two migrants in the same poor conditions, one from Bangladesh and the other from India.

"Those mozzarella are made with our blood and sweat. We work without any sort of rights for an Italian master and for 'Made-in-Italy' products".

Omizzolo says - compared to a few years ago - the overall situation has perhaps improved a little, with trade unions and police stepping in to help labourers and more formal job contracts.

Overall, however, local authorities and courts remain slow in taking action against the abuses.

Author bio

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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