Omizzolo not only organised the largest ever strike of exploited immigrants in Italy, but rescued one of them from horrific conditions of near slavery.
One morning in 2009, young sociology student Marco Omizzolo was driving past the lush green fields of Lazio, Italy, when he noticed a Sikh immigrant lying injured on the road. He leapt out of his car to assist the Sikh man and in that instant, found his life’s purpose.
The Sikh man was one of many immigrants from India, mainly Punjab, working at a farm in Lazio, near Rome, which is home to large agricultural farms spread over hundreds of acres and famous for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and salads. Because agriculture is so labour intensive, particularly in the harvest season, this is where the majority of Punjabi and Sikh immigrants, both men and women, are employed in Italy.
Helping the injured immigrant put Omizzolo on a path from which he has never returned. Now a researcher, journalist and social activist working for the rights of the large Punjabi migrant workforce employed by the agricultural farms of Lazio, he is considered by the immigrant community as ‘sent by God’.
“Working with them over all these years, I learned that in some cases of injury, the immigrants ended up in a coma; most of the incidents were hidden from the police; and some of the injured persons were even set on fire by criminals,” Omizzolo told The Wire over a video call from Rome. “I learnt how farm workers are systematically pushed into modern slavery and have their human and worker rights violated.”
His interactions with the Punjabi community led to the biggest strike of immigrants in the entire history of Italy on April 18, 2016.
“The strike was held in Latina and led not only by me, but also the Punjabi population and Italy’s biggest national trade union CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana Del Lavoro) or Italian General Confederation of Labour. About 5,000 Punjabi migrant workers participated in the rally,” Omizzolo said.
Defender of rights
Omizzolo’s study of Indian immigrants began in 2009 as research for his PhD. From that small beginning, he has become a globally recognised expert on immigration.
One of the founders of In Migrazione, an organisation that makes migrant workers aware of their rights, Omizzolo helps them organise and fight for these rights and gives them the legal support they might need. He has written numerous books and national and international essays on the subject and is an adjunct professor at the University Sapienza of Rome, teaching the sociopolitical implications of migrations.
He is also a Eurispes researcher, the president of the Tempi Moderni Centre for political studies and a Knight of the Italian Republic. He is a visiting professor at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar, both in Punjab, India.
Omizzolo’s PhD from the University of Florence was based on his study of the Indian Sikh community in the province of Latina, Italy. His research focused on the Italian, Indian and foreign mafias, the caporalato or gangmasters, the agrimafia and the ecomafia. On one occasion, he worked undercover for several months as a labourer in the fields of Italy and India while tracking an Indian human trafficker.
In 2018, Omizzolo received the honour of Cavalier of the Italian Republic from the President of Italy for exposing crimes against humanity. He has been recognised by the UN as a human rights defender and in 2020, he was nominated for UNESCO’s biennial Madanjeet Singh Prize for his research on the exploitation of Indian labourers in Italy.
All this began with a simple act of humanity – stopping to help an injured migrant worker on the road.
“My PhD study focused on the community of Indians in the area where I worked – Sabaudia in the province of Latina. To understand my subject better, I practiced participant observation. It was during this experience that I met enslaved women and men,” Omizzolo told The Wire.
To understand the exploitation of Indian farm workers in Terracina, Sabaudia and Latina and learn their way of life, Omizzolo decided to become one of them.
“We grew up together. They (Punjabi migrants) emigrated to the province of Latina and I was born and raised in Latina. So meeting them was easy,” he said. “All I had to do was to go to a gurdwara after studying the history of Sikhism and India. For a year and a half, I lived with them, sleeping in shacks and in old warehouses with 16 to 20 men,” he added.
Omizzolo also infiltrated some companies and worked as a labourer for three months. “It was a very hard experience that allowed me to understand what it means to work under bosses [gang masters]. From that moment, I decided to move on to ‘action research’ and I organised strikes and demonstrations with Indian workers,” he said.
He completed his PhD in 2012. “It took me three years to research the phenomenon of ‘Caparalato’ [the Italian word for gang masters]. The gang masters lead farm workers, but in turn harass them in the name of work and their legitimate monthly wages,” he said.
In 2010, Omizzolo travelled undercover to Punjab to track the operations of a human trafficker in Jalandhar, the hub of Non Resident Indians (NRIs), which is famous for its vast network of travel agents, both legal and illegal. For three months, he stayed with a human trafficker in Uccha Pind, a village in Jalandhar.
“During this period, I also travelled with a local Punjabi in autos and trains because I was trying to find people who were trying to find people who were aspiring to go to Italy,” said Omizzolo. ” I also visited another famous NRI hub – Phagwara town in Kapurthala district.”
During these travels, he observed that young boys are forced by their families to move to Italy. “It is their families that push them to go and they even give them the money to start the trip,” Omizzolo said.
Back in Italy, he started creating awareness among the immigrant community of their rights and also helped make them self-sufficient by organising free Italian language classes for them.
“These language courses for the migrant workers were held either very early in the morning at around 4 am or late in the day at 9-10 pm, so they could learn before or after work,” he explained.
Besides this, he organised lessons on human rights, the Italian constitution and the rights of workers. “During this period, they grew to trust me. After that they started talking about their problems,” he said.
Systems of abuse
The 2016 strike changed a few things for the immigrants, not only in the Italian system and the agrimafia, but also within their community.
“Many gang masters, both Italian and Indian, were arrested. It was also discovered that some leaders of the Indian community were human traffickers and gang masters. Today, many women and men (Indian workers) are free,” he said. “Another thing is that some of the Sikh immigrants were replaced by South African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants in the farms. Also, after the Sikhs started to learn about their rights, they started creating awareness of the rights of other types of workers.”
Because his work puts him at odds with the agrimafia, his car has been repeatedly attacked, he is often under surveillance and he has been forced to relocate many times due to death threats. “I am now under police protection. For sure, my attackers are Italian, but some Indians are also involved,” he said.
Omizzolo’s most important collaborator in his work is a Sikh man, Harbhajan Ghuman, who is based in Sabaudia, Italy. The Italian activist has also written about the exploitation of Punjabi farm workers in the form of essays from the academic point of view and documented the stories of immigrant men and women in the Italian and English languages. “A BBC reporter also interviewed me about my work. [The exploitation of Indian farm workers in Italy by Rahul Joglekar],” he said.
Typically, emigrants from Punjab pay about 14,000 to 18,000 euros (Rs 12 lakhs to Rs 15 lakhs) to get to Italy. Much of this money goes to traffickers and the agrimafia.
“I wrote a book about migrants in Europe and also contributed an essay to the Indian Migration Report 2018, edited by S. Irudaya Rajan, about the Indian migrant population in Bella Fernia, Italy,” said Omizzolo. “In these publications, I explained the legal and criminal network and the connection between Indian sponsors and the Indians now in Italy.”
The immigrants pay back these hefty amounts through money transfers. “Initially, the family pays a part of the amount and the rest is paid back, when the migrants start work,” Omizzolo explained.
In many cases, the immigrants only realise that they are bound to the agrimafia when they arrive in Italy and find themselves exploited.
“In some cases, this exploitation is contemporary slavery because they are usually victims of [violations of] human rights and workers’ rights every day for very long periods of time. This is systematic violence,” said Omizzolo. “I wrote about this in my latest book, Per Motivi Di Giustizia (For Reasons of Justice). This book is based on the stories of Balbir Singh, Mamta Kapoor and 50 other men and women through whom I tried to explain the meaning of contemporary slavery.”
One very important example is the story of Joban Singh, who died by suicide in Bella Farnia, Italy. “Joban was from Jalandhar, Punjab. I just wrote about him recently in the German newspaper Der Spiegel,” said Omizzolo.
The immigrant workers are not only exploited by the Italian agrimafia, but also fellow Punjabis. “All the gang masters are Indians (Punjabi). The human traffickers are also Punjabi. So, the gang masters and human traffickers collaborate with the owners of the Italian farms that take migrants for work. In this system, you also find the mafia, both Italian and Indian. The Indian mafia is composed of the leaders of the community.”
When we asked this question: Does that mean that the first level of exploitation begins from the Punjabi community itself?, Omizzolo paused for thought before saying, “When they are victims of human trafficking, yes, we can say that the exploitation starts from India.”
Having said that, Omizzolo, who has presented international papers in leading universities and institutions on modern slavery, racism and workers’ rights, believes that exploitation is a worldwide problem.
“It is important to say that it is a global issue. We consider the exploitation of the third world as something done by the West, but it is not just Europe. It is all over the world. We are talking about Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, China – all are involved in the exploitation of the third world. For example, in Africa, there is a new colonialism by Europe, the US, India and China,” he said. “To deal with this, we should start to change society and capitalism. We have to change the cultural, economic and political points of view.”
In Europe at least, this change in perspective would begin when the authorities erase differences between people – between locals and migrants. “Today, Europe is divided between Europeans and non-Europeans. The Europeans are citizens. Non-Europeans are not citizens. So this creates exploitation because this is a difference in human rights,” Omizzolo explained.
However, even before introspection by the authorities, Omizzolo believes that the first change can be made by those who exploit people. “It is not that I alone changed things. By changing his life, Balbir Singh and I changed society,” he said.
From slavery to freedom
In Italy, the case of Balbir Singh is inextricably entwined with Marco Omizzolo.
A farm worker, Balbir was kept in near captivity by his owners for six years and was rescued only after Omizzolo learnt of his plight. Omizzolo’s 2016 rally for Sikh migrant workers had already made him a name to reckon with. His support for Balbir Singh brought him global fame.
Unfortunately, Balbir’s case was not an exception, said Omizzolo. “This kind of exploitation was a rare case, but the tip of the iceberg. You can find other cases like that of Balbir Singh in Italy,” he said. “But I was very shocked to learn what was going on with Balbir. The first impression of any normal human being on hearing such a story is, no, it is not possible. It is difficult to believe. However, I did not doubt that Balbir’s story was true.”
Balbir’s story showed the level of slavery one can find in a democratic country like Italy, whose economy is based on capitalism, said Omizzolo. “But at the same time, you can fight against this. You have the power to fight such situations,” he added.
When Balbir Singh’s case went to court, the judge was so horrified by what the Sikh immigrant had gone through that he ordered the Italian government to issue Balbir a long stay visa “for reasons of justice”.
“Balbir and I changed the rights of migration in Italy,” said Omizzolo. “His was the first case of a migrant getting permission to stay in Italy. It is a testimony to justice. That is why my latest book was titled For Reasons of Justice. Saving Balbir’s life was like giving sense to my life. It made my life meaningful.”