The following is an excerpt from Pallavi Aiyar's travelogue titled, "Punjabi Parmesan."
Harbhajan Singh was a Sikh-Punjabi who spent over ten years cutting down trees in the central Italian countryside for Trulli Vittorio, a timber company.
It was a bright day in late February 2012. Other than his blue turban, Harbhajan wore no protective gear at all. Harbhajan attacked the trees like a demon, his chainsaw cutting great bloodless gashes into the trunks. The noise was violent. Wood chips sprayed high into the air as the trees lurched drunkenly.
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 7:00 in the morning. It was close to 4:00 pm by then. Usually Saturday was a lighter day with work finishing just past noon. But the economic situation was tough. 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. It’s normal. I don’t mind,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
Harbhajan was in the business for the long haul. “I’ve been here ten years and I’ll still be here for as long as I can work.” He’d been lucky. 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 euro for an eight-hour day (plus the occasional extra hours). “We’re cheaper than most other immigrants,” he boasted. Even the Romanians and Armenians wanted at least 80 euro for a day’s work. The illegals amongst those from the subcontinent often worked for as little as 3 or 4 euro an hour.
Harbhajan and his co-workers, all of whom had lived in Italy for at least a decade, spoke of their work with pride. They claimed the Sikhs had transformed Latina, the Italian province just south of Rome I was visiting to learn more about these immigrants.
“Italians don’t like to work too much,” said Sartaj Singh who was working alongside Harbhajan. “They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.” He lowered his voice even though we were talking in Punjabi and indicated Angelino, his overseer, with a quick sideways motion. “He never gets to work before 10:00 in the morning, even though we start at dawn.”
“Before we (Sikhs) got here, the fields were barren,” chipped in Harbhajan. There was no one to work in the fields. If there is agriculture in Latina today, it’s all because of us,” he beamed.
This was not an empty boast. Sikh agricultural immigrants in Italy constitute the second largest diaspora of those from the subcontinent in Europe, after the U.K. Official Italian government figures put the total number of workers from the subcontinent 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 Sikhs (and some others) at some 14,500, but in regions like Lombardia in Italy’s North West this number rises to 46,372. The vast majority of them are Sikh-Punjabis who had 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 Sikhs to go on strike, the country’s production of cheeses like Parmesan and Grana Padano would shut down.
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. They are rarely detained. If they happen to literally run into the local police they are fingerprinted and let off. Deportations are extremely rare.
The immigrants I spoke to over a three-day period in Latina were remarkably positive in their assessment of the Italian police. “They’re friendly and quite polite,” said Gurtej Singh, a hulking forty-year-old dressed in a white turban, spotless kurta pajama, and gold-rimmed dark glasses. “Not like in India where they treat you like dirt and want bribes for everything.”
Gurtej Singh had arrived in Italy in 2001 but waited nine years before getting legal documentation. He’d been caught and let off by the police more than a few times in the intervening years.
Gurtej told me about the fraught overland journey he made from Punjab to Europe after paying an “agent” in India Rs. 300,000 (4,500 euro). 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 till 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.”
Gurtej and several in his group were arrested near Prague after being abandoned to fend for themselves on a winter’s night in a “house” without a roof, somewhere deep in the countryside. “The agent just took off and said he’d come back for us the next day. But we realized if we stayed we’d die in the cold so we began to walk, even though it was dark and we didn’t know where we were going.”
A few hours later their group was arrested and held in a detention centre for around a month. They were eventually issued permits that allowed for short, unsupervised trips into town. On one of these outings their agent showed up again and spirited them away. Gurtej eventually reached Germany, his intended destination in Europe, two-and-a-half months after he’d left Punjab.
In Germany there were jobs available in the horticultural sector 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 gurdwara near the seaside town of Sabaudia. The building that housed the gurdwara had been a warehouse for stocking agricultural produce and despite the obvious care that had gone into maintaining it, retained a makeshift air. Outside, the yard was little more than an unpaved dirt track.
It had been inaugurated only a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. When neighbours heard the gathered Sikhs shouting out “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” the traditional jaikara or “shout of exaltation” 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 ten-hour shift in the fields to be pelted with lemons and stones by Italian kids.
Why, I asked. “Because we look different,” replied Hurtej remarkably serenely.
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.”
Pallavi Aiyar has worked as a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia. She is the author of, inter alia, the 2008 China-memoir, Smoke and Mirrors. Courtesy: The Aerogram. Edited for sikhchic.com.