Opium numbs the pain for pick­ers

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

For al­most three years, Aman­deep started most of his work­ing days eat­ing opium and ended them smok­ing heroin. In be­tween he picked wa­ter­mel­ons for up to 13 hours a day in what ac­tivists say are ex­ploita­tive con­di­tions faced by thou­sands of In­dian la­bor­ers in Italy’s Pon­tine Marshes, just south of Rome. Drugs helped him get by, says Aman­deep, a 30-year-old who asked to use a pseu­do­nym. “In sum­mer it is very hot, your back hurts. A bit of opium helps you not to get tired...Too much puts you to sleep, I took just a lit­tle, only to work,” Aman­deep told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

About 30,000 Indians, mainly Sikhs from Pun­jab state, live in the Pon­tine Marshes, a re­gion that Italy’s fas­cist regime drained for agri­cul­ture in the 1930s. Most work as la­bor­ers and over the last decade many have been forced to work for vir­tu­ally noth­ing to pay off debts to agents who promised good jobs and or­ga­nized travel from In­dia. This is known as debt bondage - the most preva­lent form of mod­ern-day slav­ery world­wide ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. As many as 46 mil­lion peo­ple are es­ti­mated to be en­slaved glob­ally, said rights group Walk Free Foun­da­tion in 2016.

Atyp­i­cal Ad­dicts

The In­dian work­ers have set­tled in vil­lages and the seaside towns where Ro­mans spend hol­i­days, but they have se­cluded lives. Speak­ing lit­tle or no Ital­ian, many cy­cle long dis­tances ev­ery day from run­down, shared ac­com­mo­da­tion to the thou­sands of farms and green­houses that pro­duce cour­gettes, radishes, mel­ons, ki­wis and moz­zarella. A grow­ing num­ber of these la­bor­ers are tak­ing drugs to cope with long hours, poor con­di­tions and very low pay, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with work­ers, doc­tors, po­lice and rights groups.

Most chew dried poppy pods, which con­tain low lev­els of mor­phine and codeine, but when con­sumed reg­u­larly can cause ad­dic­tion that re­quires methadone treat­ment. Some, like Aman­deep, slide into con­sum­ing heav­ier drugs, in­clud­ing heroin. “They are not typ­i­cal ad­dicts,” said Ezio Mat­ac­chioni, a neu­rol­o­gist at the ad­dic­tion treat­ment de­part­ment of a hospi­tal in the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Latina. These users do not seek eu­pho­ria or plea­sure, he said. “They take drugs to put up with the strain... be­cause they are treated like slaves.”

Debt Bondage

Aman­deep was pre­scribed methadone two years ago af­ter he was hos­pi­tal­ized dur­ing a with­drawal fit. He first ar­rived in Italy from Pun­jab in 2008, dream­ing of a bright fu­ture promised by a la­bor agent to whom he paid $13,000 for a plane ticket and travel doc­u­ments. Aman­deep paid half up front and took a loan from the agent for the rest, which he paid back by work­ing vir­tu­ally for free for about seven months. “(I was left with) just about enough to eat and pay the rent,” he said.

Many In­dian la­bor­ers who set­tled here in the last 10 years came in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, said Marco Omiz­zolo of In Mi­grazione, a mi­grant rights group. “Traf­fick­ers prom­ise work and ac­com­mo­da­tion as well as sort­ing out travel and pa­per work, four es­sen­tial things for those who do not speak Ital­ian,” he said. New­com­ers are some­times stripped of their doc­u­ments to en­sure they don’t leave un­til the debt is re­paid, he added. Af­ter­wards most re­main in the area, where they rely on the sup­port of the Sikh com­mu­nity but re­main vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ploita­tion. In many farms, pick­ers are paid €3-5 ($3.30-$5.50) an hour - well be­low the in­dus­try min­i­mum wage of about €8 - and work with­out breaks in scorch­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures. Those hired with a reg­u­lar con­tract of­ten have fewer days than they ac­tu­ally work recorded on their payslips. “I can’t read my con­tract,” said one la­borer. “Be­fore com­ing here I thought Italy was a par­adise but I still haven’t found where that par­adise is.”

The work is over­seen by gang mas­ters, known as “ca­po­rali”, of­ten mem­bers of the Sikh com­mu­nity act­ing as go­b­e­tweens with em­ploy­ers, who re­cruit pick­ers but with­hold part of their pay. “If the farm owner pays 4 eu­ros, (gang­mas­ters) tell (work­ers) the pay is 3.80 and pocket the dif­fer­ence,” said Gur­mukh Singh, head of a lo­cal In­dian com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion. An­drea de Gasperis, a re­gional chief prose­cu­tor, said in­ves­ti­ga­tion was dif­fi­cult as few peo­ple are will­ing to speak out against other mem­bers of their com­mu­nity. “There is lit­tle we can do if they do not re­port (abuses),” he said. Those who do are seen as trou­ble­mak­ers and it’s hard for them to find an­other work, added Omiz­zolo.

The code of si­lence be­gan to crack in April 2016 when Singh helped or­ga­nized a strike and demon­stra­tions for bet­ter pay. Those protests en­cour­aged many work­ers to come for­ward - but also ex­posed Singh to threats and in­tim­i­da­tion. Po­lice have since car­ried out dozens of in­spec­tions, and have ar­rested two gang­mas­ters, a farm owner and a farm man­ager. Pi­etro Greco, head of the lo­cal branch of Italy’s main farm­ing as­so­ci­a­tion, said Italy’s no­to­ri­ous red tape was also re­spon­si­ble for push­ing some em­ploy­ers to cut cor­ners. “If there was less bu­reau­cracy many com­pa­nies would hire work­ers with no need for mid­dle­men or ‘ca­po­rali’, he said.

Poppy Fields

Mean­while, the con­sump­tion of poppy pods is spread­ing. Omiz­zolo and Singh said they first heard about opi­oid use four years ago and re­ports have been in­creas­ing since. Few work­ers will ad­mit chew­ing husks as drug use is taboo in the com­mu­nity. Yet la­bor­ers said the pods are a com­mon sight and are rel­a­tively cheap, with 100 grams cost­ing about €10. One picker said al­most half of his about 50 co­work­ers made reg­u­lar use of the drug.

At least one worker told a mo­bile health clinic that he wanted to quit but found it dif­fi­cult as poppy use was “strongly en­cour­aged” on his farm. Two ad­dic­tion help cen­ters treated more than 20 In­dian la­bor­ers with methadone in 2016 and they ex­pect the num­ber to rise this year. “We are the tip of the ice­berg,” said Mat­ac­chioni, the neu­rol­o­gist. Pa­tients seek help to cope with with­drawal that can cause chills, sweat­ing, di­ar­rhoea, vom­it­ing and mus­cle pain. Gian­franco Mozzillo, head of a lo­cal po­lice unit, said poppy pod traf­fick­ing is an “ex­pand­ing phe­nom­e­non”. —Reuters

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