Immigrant Sikh labour is changing the face of the countryside in Italy, but for many of them it has not been an easy journey

The low-lying hills that punctuate the countryside of Latina in central Italy reverberated with the screams of Harbhajan Singh’s chainsaw. The 41-year-old Sikh attacked the trees that carpeted the hillside like a demon, cutting great bloodless gashes into the trunks. Originally from a village near Kapurthala in Punjab, Harbhajan has spent over 10 years felling trees in the Italian countryside for Trulli Vittorio, a timber company.

I had scrambled through thick, thorny bramble to get to the clearing where Harbhajan and two other Punjabis were working on a Saturday afternoon in late February. Wood chips sprayed high into the air as the trees lurched drunkenly. Other than his blue turban, Harbhajan wore no protective gear at all.

As a tree came down, I squealed and scampered away to safety. Harbhajan and his friends stood their ground, confident, smiling at my fear. Angelino, a short, stocky Italian who was the Punjabi workers’ overseer, called a rest stop.

Harbhajan had been working from 7 a.m. and it was now late in the afternoon, a few hours longer than the usual working day. The bosses needed their workers to put in a few more hours than stipulated in their contracts. Harbhajan didn’t get paid extra for the additional hours. “With the economy like this we’ve all got to work a bit harder. I don’t mind,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders.

Harbhajan was one of Italy’s immigrant worker elite. Not only had he secured a kosher Italian residence permit during one of the periodic legalisation initiatives Rome undertook every few years, but also had a permanent work contract with his company.

He was paid €65 for an eight-hour day “We’re cheaper than most other immigrants,” he boasted. Even the Romanians and Armenians wanted at least €80 for a day’s work. The illegals amongst the Indians often worked for as little as €3 or 4 an hour.

Harbhajan and his co-workers, all of whom have lived in Italy for at least a decade, spoke of their work with pride. “Italians don’t like to work too much,” said Sartaj Singh, a clean-shaven Sikh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. “They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.”

“Before we (Punjabis) got here, the fields were barren,” chipped in Harbhajan. “There was no one to work in the fields. Today if there is agriculture in Latina, it’s all because of us,” he beamed.

Big community

This is not an empty boast. Punjabi agricultural immigrants in Italy constitute the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the U.K. Official Italian government figures put the total number of workers from India in Italy at around 121,000. But given the high number of illegals, the real figure is probably closer to 200,000 according to Marco Omizzolo, an Italian sociologist at the University of Florence, who studies the community.

In the Lazio region, an area that includes Latina and the city of Rome, government estimates put the number of Indians at 14,500, but in regions like Lombardia in Italy’s Northwest, this number rises to 46,372. The vast majority of the Indians in the country are Punjabi Sikhs who have immigrated over the last 20 years, and most of them work on vegetable and dairy farms.

Tucked away in the remote Italian countryside, their presence has gone largely unnoticed in Italian society and is only rarely reported in the media. But it is, nonetheless, said by those in the know that were the Indians to go on strike, the country’s production of cheeses like Parmesan and Grana Padano would shut down.

The First Secretary in charge of information at the Indian embassy in Rome claims that Indians are seen as “reliable, enterprising and quite docile”. “They work hard and don’t demand things like some of these others…,” the official leaves the rest of the sentence dangling complicity between us.

Indeed, their “docility” and willingness to work hard while staying out of sight has meant that Italian authorities usually turn a blind eye to the illegal status of many of these workers. Deportations are extremely rare, but the journey into Europe remains fraught with danger.

Gurtej Singh, a hulking 40-year-old dressed in a white turban and gold-rimmed dark glasses, told me about the fraught, overland journey he had made from Punjab to Europe after paying an “agent” in India Rs. 3 lakh. The agent had convinced Gurtej and seven others from his village that the trip would be a cinch. They’d be taken from Delhi to Moscow by plane, before being whisked off straight to Germany in a taxi, they were assured.

The reality proved starkly different. The first leg of the trip was indeed by plane to Moscow, but once in Russia they were kept isolated in a windowless room for over a week with little food and no information. Eventually they were joined by small groups of illegals from Vietnam, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

They were then taken on foot through the Ukraine and Czech Republic. “Madam, it was winter and there was so much snow, sometimes upto our knees,” Gurtej told me, his voice flat and eyes invisible behind his dark glasses. “There was a man in our group who got frostbite and he collapsed. He couldn’t walk anymore. The agent just left him there to die.”

Issues of identity

Gurtej eventually reached Germany, his intended destination in Europe, two-and-a-half months after he’d left Punjab. But prospective employers asked him to shave his beard and take off his turban. “They thought I looked like a terrorist. But for me, my religion is everything,” said Gurtej, “and I refused.” “Then I heard in Italy they were less strict about these things, so I came here instead.”

We were standing outside a gurudwara near the seaside town of Sabaudia. The building that housed the gurudwara had been a warehouse for stocking agricultural produce and despite the obvious care that had gone into maintaining it, retained a makeshift air about it. Outside, the yard was little more than an unpaved dirt track.

Motorbikes, bicycles, and a few cars crowded the yard. I reckoned 400 odd devotees had come that morning from the surrounding farms for the Sunday prayers. Gurtej said the numbers could swell to 800. In all, there were 35 gurudwaras in Italy, including some of the largest outside of India. But the one in Sabaudia was unimposing.

It had been inaugurated only a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 9, 2001. When neighbours heard the gathered Sikhs shouting out “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” the traditional jaikara Sikhs use to express religious joy, they called the police convinced that they were “terrorists” celebrating the attacks.

“We’ve had a tough time since then, trying to explain to people we are not terrorists,” said Gurtej, “and they mostly get it now.” But it wasn’t uncommon for workers returning home on bikes after a 10-hour shift in the fields to be pelted with lemons and stones by Italian kids.

Why, I asked. “Because we look different,” replied Gurtej remarkably serene. “They don’t really understand what they are doing.” How do you put up with that kind of humiliation, I persisted? Harbhajan joined in. “The money is better and it’s not like life is without humiliations back in India. At least here we don’t have to deal with the kind of corruption we face back home.”

At the gurudwara that morning the granthi was reciting prayers. “Pain is the remedy,” he crooned. “The joy of mammon is the disease.” The irony of the sentiment was lost on the gathered congregation. They sat, men on one side, women on the other, heads covered, eyes closed in remembrance, or perhaps simply exhaustion, and rocked gently back and forth.