The domain of the Pontine Lagoons is all the same. The flat line of the horizon stretches for miles, interrupted only by the distant peaks of the Lepini and Ausonii mountains; and towards the sea, by the Circeo. Long, straight, monotonous roads intersect at regular intervals with equally straight roads that separate fields and greenhouses. These roads lead to new towns, built by Italian fascism, and agricultural towns with similar names referring to distant regions and battles fought on the borders of Italy during the First World War: Borgo Carso, Borgo Piave, Borgo Grappa, Borgo Montello, Borgo Isonzo, Borgo Hermada.
Fields, towns, hamlets, stately homes and buildings complete the landscape, the result of careless planning during the post-war building boom, especially in the major urban centres. More and more fields. Land torn from the marshes by the huge fascist agrarian drainages of the 1930s, which in their time were ceded to settlers who came mostly from the north of the country. Today, some of these new settlers are those who exploit other migrants.
The region’s Indian community of more than 30,000, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, is the small silent army of workers who have been cultivating these lands for decades. In this vast territory located a few kilometers from the capital, Rome, the corporal (illegal recruitment of labor through intermediaries, corporal), an endemic disease that makes possible the exploitation of thousands of workers, often controlled by their own Indian compatriots. Mafias with interests also operate in one of the largest fruit and vegetable markets in Italy, that of the town of Fondi, in the province of Latina. In this market, most of the workers are honest people, but that generates too much money not to attract criminal organizations.
In Italy, the activity of illegal hiring of agricultural labor generates more than 20,000 million euros per year. Agriculture in Lazio revolves around the Pontine lagoons, with its almost 10,000 companies and around 25,000 workers in the intensive cultivation of fruit and vegetables.
The police and the judiciary carry out intense activity to combat these phenomena. Controls and operations are continuous. In April 2021, seven people ended up in prison for illegal association of exploitation of non-European migrants, extortion and unauthorized use of pesticides for greenhouse crops. Just under a month later, in May, a doctor was arrested in Sabaudia. He had illegally prescribed oxycodone to more than 200 people, all Indian farm workers who took drugs to go to work.
The sociologist Marco Omizzolo, professor at the Sapienza in Rome and researcher at Eurispes, was the first to sound the alarm on the generalization of the use of “doping” drugs, opioids and analgesics for eliminate the fatigue of field work. Omizzolo has been fighting for several years against illegal hiring. He was one of the first to come into contact with the Indian community in 2009 and to gain the confidence of the day laborers.
Because of his activity, Omizzolo lives under police protection after having been the victim of threats and intimidation. He was one of the organizers of the first strike in the history of Sikh workers, together with the union of the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL), on April 18, 2016. 4,000 people gathered outside the prefecture of Latina . “With the publication of my book sotto padrone [Al servicio del amo. Ediciones Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli] In 2019, this reality finally caught the eye. Very important investigations have been carried out, both journalistic and police,” says the sociologist. “For example, my book dealt with the subject of legal and illegal plant protection products, and a few months ago, during an extraordinarily large operation carried out by the police and the prosecution, several individuals were arrested, a businessman and a few foremen; but also a doctor from Sabaudia and a pharmacist for prescribing dangerous drugs to boost Indian workers to bear the extreme burden of fatigue”.
In Italy, the business of illegal hiring of agricultural labor generates more than 20,000 million euros per year
Antispasmodics, analgesics, heroin, dried opium bulbs: to the clandestine recruitment is added the problem of drugs, consumed almost daily to support 12 and 14 hours leaning on the culture of the fields. “Businessmen know that day laborers take drugs to go to work, to bear the fatigue. I myself helped repatriate the bodies of six or seven people who died of fatigue and drug abuse. It’s something that’s been going on for a long time, but in recent years it’s become a big problem. People are going into debt because they use more and more drugs. Then work to pay them. They become drug addicts. But for them, for the bosses, it doesn’t matter. If you die, they replace you with another. They don’t care, ”denounces the Indian Harbhajan Ghuman, resident of Sabaudia for 18 years, seated in a cafe next to the national road which cuts the city in two.
All over Sabaudia there are expat shops selling phones, SIM cards and groceries. Sets of anonymous dwellings with chipped walls due to the salinity of the sea and abandonment also abound. “Between 1997 and 2000, I spent a season in England. Then I went back to India for a year because I had a little girl, and I decided to come to Italy in 2003. The working conditions here were very different from those in England. I remember I was going to the Sikh temple, I couldn’t speak Italian, and I was looking for the people in charge to talk to them. There I found my first job as a cook in the community canteen and on Sundays many people went to pray, sometimes up to 1,700 people. It was the only temple in the area. But he mostly worked in the fields. One day I saw Marco Omizzolo. I did not know him. He was one of the first to help me stand up for my rights,” Ghuman recalls. “At the time, I charged two and a half euros an hour. The day began at half past five in the morning and ended at six in the evening. We slept in cabins in the fields. I didn’t know how it was in other regions, but here in Lazio things didn’t work out well. Marco asked me for copies of my employment contract. At first, people were afraid to show their contracts. For years, we worked like this, for fear of reprisals. Then the situation began to change gradually. Normally, the employer paid the boss six or seven euros for an hour of work, and he gave four or four and a half to the workers.
In August 2018, Roberto Graziosi, former chief commissioner of the police department of Terracina, another municipality in the Pontine lagoons, carried out a series of police operations in the area during which several middlemen and agricultural entrepreneurs were arrested for exploitation by work. Police discovered four Indian workers in a shed where makeshift beds had been set up inside the old cold room of a disused lorry. A container served as a toilet. The businessman, an Italian, was arrested.
Sometimes worse things happen. Graziosi recounts “the impressive case of an agricultural businessman who, to prevent several workers from leaving, threatened them with a shotgun”. And he continues: “He also had an Indian foreman who controlled his compatriots, who could not even go to the toilet or take a break to eat, because otherwise he would deduct this time from their salary. The same impresario roamed the fields with a shotgun in the seat of his car, and from time to time he fired shots in the air to make the peons work faster. It reminded us of the days of slavery in the cotton fields. Slavery: Graziosi does not choose the word at random.
“In recent decades there has been an ethnic shift in agricultural work in the Pontine Lagoons. Before, the men and women who lived in the province of Latina worked, and also those who came down from the mountains of Lepinos and spent their working hours on the farms”, explains the trade unionist Pino Cappucci, general secretary of the FLAI-CGIL, the Federation of Agribusiness Workers of Lazio. “The operating conditions were not very different. Now, however, with the arrival of this whole Indian community from Punjab, there has been a deterioration. It is as if this exchange of Italian labor for Indian had given the so-called employers a new freedom and, above all, new possibilities of abusing the worker, of enslaving him”.
They don’t care if it’s a holiday or not; whether it is a holy day for us or not: we must always work. If you ever say you won’t go, they punish you
Indian employee packing fruit in Italy
Borgo Hermada, one of many towns that emerged in the 1930s, saw the Indian presence grow year after year, becoming an important pillar of the local community. Next to the church, in the city center, the town hall, the bank and a few bars, are the essential migrant shops. A group of Indian boys play on a precarious soccer field set up on a vacant lot between two buildings. There is also a Sikh temple, and every Sunday hundreds of people pack a shed to pray. “They don’t care if it’s a public holiday or not; whether it is a holy day for us or not: we must always work. If you ever say you won’t go, they punish you. Maybe you don’t work four or five days in a row. We have to bow our heads and always say yes. At least they pay us what’s fair, pay us overtime if it’s Sunday. We work, but they give us what corresponds to us by contract”, protests an Indian woman who works as a fruit packer.
The Indian population in Italy is largely peaceful and has remained on the margins of social conflict for the past two decades. But something has changed: in Borgo Montello, on the night of October 31 to November 1, 2021, Sumal Jagsheer was beaten to death. He celebrated with several compatriots the birth of his son in India. Another group of Indians arrived with iron bars and shotguns. In addition to Jagsheer, 10 other injured people were left lying on the ground. Authorities have arrested five suspects in the attack. An ugly and complex story within the community, in which balances, power and criminal entanglements overlap.
“In the Indian community, there are many internal divisions,” says Omizzolo. “The process of emancipation has led to a very complex redistribution of power. Some of them got into crime, and bosses appeared who became referents of interests and very dangerous characters. This is why, as I never cease to insist, exploitation and illegal hiring are not only an economic dynamic, but also and above all a political dynamic, since they distribute and define power relations even before the economic affair.
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