Latina, Italy and Jalandhar, India – The 12 armed men appeared just before sunrise, as darkness hung thick over the remote farm outside Borgo Sabotino, south of Rome.
It was March 17, 2017, a date Balbir Singh will never forget.
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“I was really scared. The farm owners shouted for me to run away. But I did not,” said Singh, a decision he is happy to have made.
The 12 men were Italian police in plain clothes, and kindly asked him to come along.
“My clothes were filthy. My state was dreadful. I had deep wounds on my hands and feet, and my nails were bleeding. But it was a big day. In the minutes before we left, I saw that the police had arrested the farm owner and his wife.”
Singh, a former English teacher and longtime farm worker who hails from the Punjab region known as India’s breadbasket, said he suffered six years of exploitation in Italy, citing violence, death threats, theft, lack of pay, hunger and deprivation.
Like other Indian workers in Italy, Singh arrived and could not understand the Italian language, had little money and no knowledge of his rights.
For long periods, Singh had no food. He lived on the stale bread he found in the farming family’s rubbish bin or leftovers they had thrown out to feed pigs and chickens.
He lived in an old caravan without gas, electricity or heating.
No one heard his cry for help, until one day, the Italian sociologist and researcher Marco Omizzolo was notified by a fellow Indian worker – and asked local police to intervene.
Singh is one of the few migrant workers who has taken his former employer to court.
He sought justice for the humiliations to which he was subjected and wanted raise awareness of the conditions of migrants.
In 2018, he became the first immigrant in Italy to be granted a residence permit “for reasons of justice”.
The trial is continuing.
Farming’green gold’ plantations
During the past 30 years, Indian workers – mostly from Punjab – have come to Agro Pontino, an area south of Rome, but few dare to speak out, especially to foreigners and journalists, about the abuse they have endured.
According to Omizzolo, of the 30,000 Indian residents in Italy, most are employed as labourers in the Italian fruit-and-vegetable sector.
Agro Pontino is one of the country’s most productive growing regions and its flagship products include kiwis, locally known as “green gold”.
Between July and December, many Indian labourers work in kiwi plantations.
Italy produces 320,000 tonnes of kiwis annually, mostly in Lazio, and exports to 50 countries, making it the main European producer and the third-largest in the world after China and New Zealand.
It is a market worth more than 400 million euros ($431m), led by Zespri, a multinational company.
Zespri is best known for the yellow-fleshed variety – one of their patents – the SunGold.
From the fields of small and medium-sized farms, the kiwis are taken to the cooperatives’ large warehouses, where they are packed and branded with the Zespri logo, before being marketed throughout Europe.
The rules for harvesting Zespri kiwis are strict; cotton gloves are mandatory and delicate, precise manoeuvres are required to preserve the fruit.
Workers described being forced to work in the fields seven days a week, 10-11 hours a day, and are paid no more than six euros ($6.50) an hour. Adequate toilets and taking breaks are out of reach for many, while several workers told Al Jazeera that they were not regularly given compulsory protective equipment such as gloves and masks.
In addition, the impermanence of the jobs make them seem perilous – without a regular work contract, it is not possible to renew a residence permit and live legally in Italy.
To get to Italy, workers pay up to 15,000 euros ($16,200) to Indian intermediaries and incur in debts in India.
Many take on loans from acquaintances and relatives, or sell land, cows, and family jewellery.
But staying at home is not an option – the monthly salary of those who do manual labour in Punjab is usually between 80 and 120 euros ($87 to $120). In Italy, an Indian labourer receives an average 863 euros ($934) per month.
Gurjinder, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, worked for three years for a company that sells kiwis to Zespri.
With a low voice, hunched shoulders, and tearful eyes, he remembered when a supervisor who scolded him, shouting as soon as he stopped working for a few moments.
“She insulted me and threatened to beat me up.”
In the fields, the supervisor filmed him three times with her mobile phone as he stopped to drink and something got into his eyes.
The videos served as “proof” of his lack of efficiency and were handed over to the head of the company in an episode seen as a “warning” to other workers.
When asked why he did not leave the company immediately, Gurjinder held his head in his gnarled hands and burst into tears.
“I had no choice, I had to earn for my four children and my wife. They stayed in India, I haven’t seen them for 13 years.”
Zespri told Al Jazeera that while most employers in the kiwifruit industry “care for their people, a small minority may be failing to do so”.
The company added, “Any exploitation of workers is unacceptable and we are committed to holding those people involved to account, and to continuing to improve our compliance frameworks to help us do so. We take the allegations made extremely seriously and have commenced an investigation into this, including how we can best support affected workers.”
It works with more than 1,200 growers in Italy who are required to have the Global Gap GRASP (Global Risk Assessment On Social Practice) certificate, an independent and international certification system that outlines criteria for the safety, health, and welfare of workers, Zespri said.
Its suppliers who package the product are registered with Sedex, a third-party certification body that monitors workers’ conditions for Italian suppliers of SunGold Kiwifruit.
Zespri said it has contacted both third-party certification bodies and its suppliers “to make them aware of the alleged unfair practices” alleged in this investigation and “to try to obtain more information” about them.
At present, there are no formal complaints against the consortia that sell kiwis to Zespri, or against the multinational company itself.
Back in India for a visit to attend his son’s wedding, Singh said he now feels like a “free soul”.
“I am waiting for my compensation and the closure of the case. Then I want to take my wife to Italy, where I have decided to build a house. I can’t wait for good days to come,” he said.
“Life is a struggle and one must fight, but I would never want even the worst of my enemies to face the problems I faced. Even today, when I remember that time, I get goosebumps.”