Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

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

  • The Pontine Plains in central Italy (Photo: Silvia Marchetti)
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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.

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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.

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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