Sikh workers at mafia-backed “slave farms” in Italy are starting to speak out, according to a new article by The Times UK.
One worker who spoke to The Times and went by the name Ranju, said that he came close to suicide when he was forced to “drink from the cattle trough and eat scraps left for the hens”.
46 year old Ranju, an immigrant from Punjab, said:
“The owner beat me, showed me his gun and told me, ‘I’m with the mafia, and if you ever talk I will bury you in a ditch where your body will never be found’.”
Ranju is among about 22,000 other Sikhs who pick fruits and vegetables on farms around the city of Latina – many of whom are now starting to fight back against “slave-like” treatment by farmers, many of whom have mafia backing.
“There are plenty more out there like me who are afraid,” Ranju said.
After his employer was arrested, he joined a strike in Latina days ago where 3,000 Indian farm workers banded together and demanded an end to “years of exploitation”.
The strike came as a result of an incident on a farm near Terracina where the owner was accused of pressing a knife up against the throats of his Sikh workers. He was also accused of firing his shotgun at them while he forced them to work inhumane hours.
The area of Latina was drained by Mussolini and turned into farmland. One inscription in Sabaudia says the area was lifted from “thousands of years of lethargy and sterility”.
In the 1980’s, farmers in the area found cheap labor from migrants from Punjab, like Ranju. Ranju had initially left Punjab hoping to make more money for his wife and three children, but wound up as a prisoner after his employer took his residency documents and paid him just €100 per month.
After a Sikh strike in 2016, he finally went to the police. Marco Omizzolo, a sociologist who has held evening classes to inform the Sikhs of their rights, assisted him.
Omizzolo said: “Police found a pistol at the farm thought to have been used in the Calabrian mafia massacre in Duisburg in Germany in 2007, suggesting the owner really did have mob links.”
Omizzolo earned a medal from Italy’s president for helping the migrants – but standing up to the mob has its ugly points, too.
“In the last two years I’ve had animal blood dumped outside my house, cars destroyed and I need to keep the police informed of my movements. Farmers who aren’t involved with the mafia will often use mafia methods,” he said.
Sicilian, Calabrian and Naples mafias are all active in the area.
Fabio Ciconte, the head of charity Terra, which assists farm workers said: “Clans are also interested in making money from the entire farming sector, particularly the transport of food.”
A recent report estimated that mafia revenue from agriculture came in at €24.5 billion a year.
Gurmukh Singh, 46, the head of the regional association of Indian migrants in Sabaudia thinks that the Indian workers’ efforts are being undermined by other immigrant groups willing to work for low wages in the area. He said: “The Indians are standing up against exploitation but as long as the Bangladeshis and African asylum seekers accept €2 an hour we will be weak.”
Ciconte continued: “The Sikhs have understood they need to fight. But they have the advantage of living permanently in the area and picking greenhouse produce all year round. Contrast that with the Africans, Romanians and Bulgarians in Puglia, where 80 per cent of the picking is tomatoes outdoors, meaning the work is temporary and the workforce migrates. It’s much harder to organize.”
Near Foggia in Puglia, immigrants live in “filthy shanty towns which are regularly demolished by police.”‘
Near Sabaudia, Sikhs have converted a warehouse into a large temple. At the foot of their altar lies axes, arrows, swords, daggers and a sword – symbols that remind the temple’s congregation of past Sikh struggles in India.
“These show how we are a strong community with a big heart and can defend ourselves.”