For six years, Balbir Singh endured “slave-like” conditions with no holidays or rest tending cattle in the province of Latina, a rural area south of Rome that is home to tens of thousands of Indian migrant workers like him.

Referring to his ordeal, Singh uses the Italian word “macello”, which roughly translates as “mess”. The word may not fully describe the migrant workers’ situation, which according to them is worse.

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“I was working 12-13 hours a day, including Sundays, with no holidays, no rest,” Singh told AFP, adding that the farm owner paid him 100 to 150 euros ($120 to $175) a month, he said, which amounts to less than 50 cents an hour. 

Please note: The legal minimum wage for farm workers is around 10 euros an hour in Italy

How did Balbir Singh and others manage to escape the “macello”?

Singh and other migrant workers appealed for help via Facebook and WhatsApp to local Indian community leaders and an Italian rights activist. And after a long ordeal, they were rescued in a police raid on March 17, 2017.

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Inhuman living conditions 

In the raid, officers found Balbir and others living in a caravan, with no gas, hot water or electricity. They ate the leftovers that his boss either threw in the bin or gave to chickens and pigs. 

Balbir Singh had to wash in the stables, with the same hosepipe he used to clean cattle. And, the rule was made clear to him, he can’t or shouldn’t complain.

“When I found a lawyer ready to help me, (the owner) told me… ‘I’ll kill you, I’ll dig a hole, throw you in it, and fill it up’… he had a gun, I saw it,” recalled Balbir, who took four years to gather courage to speak up against the cruelty he faced in Rome. He is still scared and fears retribution as his ‘master’ is now on trial for labour exploitation, therefore lives in a secret location.

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Indian migrants were trapped

Beaten quite a few times, Singh’s identity papers were also taken away by the owner, who is now being tried by an Italian court.

Like Singh, there are many who fit into a wider picture of brutal exploitation of migrant farm labourers in the Agro Pontino — the Pontine Marshes, the plain around Latina — and elsewhere in Italy.

In 2018, more than 400,000 agricultural workers in Italy risk being exploited and almost 100,000 likely face “inhumane conditions”, according to the UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.

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A 27-year-old from Mali collapsed and died in the southeastern Apulia region last month after working a day in the fields in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). 

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In the Agro Pontino, a major hub for greenhouse farming, floriculture and buffalo mozzarella production, Indians have been a presence since the mid-1980s.They work on land drained from marshes in the 1930s, one of the biggest public works projects enacted under dictator Benito Mussolini.

Around 25,000 and 30,000 Indians live in the Agro Pontino, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab region, said Sociologist Marco Omizzolo, the rights activist who helped free Singh.

In an illegal but well-established system, migrant workers live under the thumb of “caporali”, the gangmasters who recruit farm labourers on behalf of land owners, Omizzolo said.

On paper vs off paper

“Formally, it is all by the book,” said Omizzolo, adding that the reality is far grimmer. These workers are given proper contracts but then are paid for only a fraction of their work.

“You may work 28 days, but they’ll mark only four on your pay slip, so at the end of the month you may get 200, 300 euros,” the activist told AFP.

A recent police investigation offered fresh evidence of widespread opioid abuse among the Indian community. A doctor was arrested  in the beach town of Sabaudia. He was accused of illegally prescribing more than 1,500 boxes of Depalgos, a powerful painkiller containing Oxycodone and given to cancer patients, to 222 Indian farm workers.

“The drug presumably allowed them to work longer in the fields by relieving pain and fatigue,” Latina chief prosecutor Giuseppe De Falco told AFP.

Issue in parliament

The exploitation of farm workers is a known problem. Keeping in mind the issue, an anti-caporali law passed in 2016. Singh’s employer was prosecuted under that law only.

Where is the gap?

Activists and labour unions highlight the gaps in the system. They say there are still too few checks and labour inspectors to enforce the law properly.

Sociologist Omizzolo, who works with the Eurispes think tank, spent years researching farm labour abuse in the Latina area — some of it undercover, said the working conditions are still far from ideal. But the protest, he said, made the Indians understand that “it pays to fight for your rights.”

(With Inputs from AFP)