Amrita has lived and worked in Italy’s farms half her life. The 30-year-old was born in the state of Punjab, India, where many in her community dream of a better life in Europe. When she was 15, she got the golden ticket and landed in Italy’s farming heartland, only 100 kilometres from Rome.
But the dreams she sought turned into a nightmare when she started facing workplace harassment while packaging tomatoes at an agricultural cooperative in Italy.
“To them I am a prey, not a person. When you are a woman, especially an immigrant, alone and with a child, men — both Italians and Indians — feel free to torment you,” she told VICE World News.
Two years ago, Amrita’s husband abandoned her and their son and returned to India, where he remarried without divorcing her. While she was trying to come to terms with the shock and her new responsibilities as a single mother, she says she faced unprecedented harassment at work. “They see you alone, even on the street, and start stalking you,” she said. “If you are a single woman, they dub you as someone who is ‘easy’ and consequently, you end up being harassed.” Amrita and other women who spoke with VICE World News requested the use of pseudonyms for their safety.
More than 26,500 Indian women work in Italy, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies. Like Amrita, many of them are Punjabi and work in the agricultural cooperatives of Agro Pontino.
A former marsh, Agro Pontino was controversially cleared of small communities and made into well-planned farming towns by Benito Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s. The 200,000-acre area now supplies fruit, vegetables and flowers to businesses and supermarkets across Europe.
Amrita filed several complaints against men she worked with through Tempi Moderni, a nonprofit in Agro Pontino that helps farmers fight for their rights.
“The legal battle keeps getting delayed and is proving to be exhausting. It is causing me severe depression,” she said.
But Amrita is one of the fortunate ones – her legal status in Italy allows her to pursue legal action. Many immigrant Punjabi women working in agricultural cooperatives in Agro Pontino are exploited and harassed with impunity by gangster-slash-agents, known in Italian as caporali or capos.
The capos act as informal and illegal intermediaries used by farm owners to recruit and manage hundreds of workers, including undocumented immigrants, on Italian farms. Many capos are of Indian origin, and Punjabi women face serious exploitation from them. Since many cannot afford to lose their jobs, the capos have power to control, subjugate and harass them. In particular, the capos are known to harass and exploit Punjabi women in exchange for fair wages and renewed contracts.
Punjabi women VICE World News spoke to said many Indian capos harass them, inside and outside their cooperatives.
“As long as you entertain them, you stay in their good books, otherwise, you are blacklisted. Being blacklisted can often translate into isolation, being assigned some of the worst jobs such as packing vegetables or working in the open fields under harsh weather conditions for hours, failure to renew contract and, finally, dismissal, which also means an end of the residence permit,” Amrita said.
The community of agricultural workers in Agro Pontino is made up largely of Indian Punjabis, who began to settle in its towns Aprilia, Latina, Sabaudia and Terracina at the end of the 1980s to work in Agro Pontino’s agriculture and livestock sectors. Punjabi women arrived years after the men, during the first half of the 2000s. According to the 2022 interim report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Working Conditions in Italy, many Punjabis find themselves in conditions of exploitation that can be compared to slavery in Italy.
Explaining this phenomenon as a “well-established system of importing low-cost labour” that starts from Punjab in India, Giovanni Gioia, secretary of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) of Frosinone and Latina said, “The paradox is that these Punjabis do not want to work on their own lands in India and are on the lookout to emigrate by any means. In the hope of improving their condition, they get into debt with traffickers both at home and in Italy.”
Tempi Moderni was the first organisation to unveil the system of labour exploitation and trafficking of human beings in Agro Pontino in 2010.
“When we started our research, we discovered that the Punjabi community were not only paid less than a euro an hour, but were forced to work up to 12-14 hours in the greenhouse every day of the month,” Marco Omizzolo, the vice president of Tempi Moderni, told VICE World News.
According to the NGO WeWorld, the working and social conditions of Punjabi women in Italy are harsher and more prohibitive compared to those of Punjabi men.
Indian women are recruited only if there is a need for extra workers and are paid 30 percent less than what men earn. That means that if a male worker makes 4.50 euros an hour, a woman worker is offered only 3 euros an hour. Some women are also not properly compensated for the hours they work.
Many Punjabi women don’t speak up about workplace harassment out of fear of how their family will react. “If a man wants to call out workplace harassment, he can complain about the same, but if a woman wants to raise a grievance, she is advised by male family members to stay silent and give up the job instead,” Omizzolo of Tempi Moderni told VICE World News.
Women also “experience specific kinds of workplace exploitation” such as “sexual blackmail, violence and marginalization,” Omizzolo added. In some farming cooperatives, warehouses have been discovered where bosses and capos have sexually harassed Punjabi women labourers. In other cases, documented by the CGIL and Tempi Moderni, the capos demanded sexual favours to renew contracts or settle outstanding wages.
VICE World News visited a Sikh Gurudwara in Sabaudia town in Agro Pontino to interview women workers. While most agreed that sexual exploitation was rampant, there was silence around individual experiences. The most common response was: “This has never happened to me, but I know many women who have faced sexual exploitation.”
Leela, a Punjabi woman who sued her Italian employers for wage harassment, told VICE World News the reason for silence was that in Indian culture, if a woman receives sexual offers, she is often victim-blamed and slut-shamed. “Instead of fighting with us, our men tell us that we should change the way we dress, stop wearing makeup, and be more submissive as a way to stop the unwarranted attention,” she said.
Leela said that she knows “farms where the owners have tried to sexually exploit workers.” She said the farms were part of large agricultural companies that earn millions of euros and employ hundreds of labourers.
“Women who complain about excessively long working hours, low wages or sexual harassment are often at the risk of being fired.”
The Lilith Women’s Center in Latina town believes the threat of domestic violence is also a deterrent to Punjabi women seeking justice when they face harassment.
“We have seen unprecedented violence that remains imprinted on the bodies of these women: cigarette burns, scars, bruises. But despite being subjected to deep-seated violence, it is very difficult to convince these women to start a new life, since the family pressure is too strong,” said Francesca Innocenti of Lilith Women’s Centre.
Sara, a native of Punjab who now lives in a shelter provided by Lilith, recalled how her husband used to mercilessly beat her even when she was pregnant.
“Both our families begged me not to complain, fearing that my husband’s arrest would cause embarrassment. But, after an episode of violent beating, I decided to call the police.”
But things are changing. Tempi Moderni, together with the CGIL and the non-profit In Migrazione, organised the first strike of Sikh workers in Italy, in April 2016. Gioia recalls that over four thousand Indians attended the demonstration. Among these protesters, many were without contracts and attended the event despite the risk of deportation.
Demonstrations are a regular occurrence now. Over the last few years, more and more women have also started coming to these protests to voice their complaints, which they feel they cannot share with their husbands and families, for fear of being shamed and stigmatised within the community.
Omizzolo said NGOs have now started receiving more complaints from Punjabi women who face mistreatment and violence, both at home and in the workplace – a positive development, because such incidents used to be grossly underreported.
As for Amrita, her contract has not been renewed and she no longer trusts anyone in the community, but she has no intention of returning to India.
“Single women like me have to face a lot of problems to survive and it’s difficult here, but at least my son and I have options in Italy.”
The first part is here and explores the trafficking of women from Punjab to Europe.
Follow Pari Saikia on Twitter.