Fields Of Despair: Punjabi Farm Workers Exploited In Italy

A sociologist is helping underpaid, over-worked agricultural laborers organize in the city of Latina, southeast of Rome.

Punjabi workers in Latina, Italy
Punjabi workers in Latina, Italy
Niccolò Zancan

LATINA — Folded up, alongside his Italian identity card, was Zulfiqar Ahmed's last paycheck — just 164 euros for a full month of back-breaking work in the fields. Born in Pakistan on June 10, 1961, Ahmed's life ended, 57 years later, in the countryside outside the city of Latina, southeast of Rome.

"He worked every day, including on Sundays, but his employer only paid him for 20 hours of work a month," says Marco Omizzolo, 43, a sociologist who lives in nearby Sabaudia and helps agricultural workers organize for their rights. "Zulfiqar was desperate but he never complained. He thought his documents were in order, but he couldn't survive. One day, while walking from one field to another, he left the group and hung himself from a beam in a greenhouse."

Over the last two years, 10 immigrant workers have committed suicide while working in the agricultural industry that surrounds Latina. The region produces watermelons, melons, and buffalo-milk mozzarella, but workers toil in deplorable conditions for extremely low wages.

At the same time, more than 150 workers have formally denounced the exploitative conditions and violent abuse they suffer at agricultural firms in the region. With Omizzolo's assistance, they found about 450 witnesses to support their claims, and on April 18, 2016, the workers organized the first-ever strike by Sikh farm workers in central Latina.

While working conditions for Sikh laborers have somewhat improved since then, Omizzolo's life has become decidedly more fraught. He has been threatened numerous times and in March, his car was vandalized.

"The most frightening thing is that I hadn't told anyone I was coming home that night," he says. "I was coming back in the evening from Venice, I had dinner with my parents, and when I came outside I found my car had been keyed, the tires slashed, and the windshield shattered."

Used and abused

Omizzolo first started helping workers after seeing them walking the streets during his morning bicycle commute. He took a job as a laborer himself to investigate the awful working conditions they faced on local farms. "In Terracina, Sabaudia, and Latina, I would see all these young men, and I knew nothing about their religion or their community," he says. "I decided to live among them for some time so I could understand them better."

Beyond the physical toil of agricultural work, Omizzolo found that laborers were also subjected to psychological abuse. They were forced to refer to the boss as their "master," and many had to work on their knees for up to 14 hours a day. Anyone who dared complain was beaten senseless and dropped off at the emergency room, threatened with losing their job if they reported anything to the authorities.

The average wage ranges from a high of 4.5 euros per hour to an astonishing low of 0.50 euros. Many workers, especially older men, use methamphetamines, opiates, and antispasmodic drugs to sustain themselves during the long working hours. Most of them are recruited in Punjab and brought to Italy by intermediaries who promise them well-paying jobs.

"The intermediary tells them they will take care of everything for the cost of 8,000 euros before the trip, and then they must pay another 4,000 to the employer once they arrive," says Omizzolo. "They're brought in with legal work permits thanks to a quota system and they come here thinking they'll be living in a land of plenty. But after they arrive they find themselves in hell."

The biggest problem is the indifference of Italy's political institutions.

Few people have come to Omizzolo's aid and some of his friends have even deserted him, but he has received support from Gian Carlo Caselli, a well-known former judge, and Gruppo Abele, an NGO founded by the anti-Mafia crusader and Catholic priest Luigi Ciotti.

Built in the 1980s, the Residence Bella Farnia Mare is now home to 3,000 immigrant workers from India and Pakistan. It's a symbol of Latina's failure to transform itself into a tourist hub, and the hotel now rents its rooms out to laborers for 150 euros a month.

"The biggest problem is the indifference of Italy's political institutions," says Omizzolo. "Only three out of the area's 21 municipalities have taken action against illegal farm work, and there are 10,000 agricultural firms that operate here. This system is convenient for many people because it brings in enormous revenues."

Omizzolo still keeps Zulfiqar's last paycheck in his pocket to remind himself of the struggle workers like him face every day. "How could he survive on 164 euros a month?"

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