“In sum Punjabi Parmesan is the story of the shared journey of Europe, India and China over the last tumultous decade.” — Amitav Ghosh
Examining the diverse challenges Europe faces today — among them, bloated welfare states, the accommodation of Islam, the ambitions of Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, and the fissures that threaten to break up this union of diverse nations — Punjabi Parmesan takes a panoramic look at Europe’s first-world crisis from a unique India-China perspective.
In 2009, after several years in China, journalist Pallavi Aiyar moved to Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, to discover a Europe plagued by a financial crisis, and unsure of its place in a world where new Asian challengers are eroding its old and comfortable certainties. Aiyar takes the reader across the continent as she meets workaholic Indian diamond merchants in Antwerp, upstart Chinese wine barons in Bordeaux, and Indian engineers running offshore energy turbines in Belgium. With permission, The Aerogram shares an excerpt in which the author meets Sikh workers in the Italian countryside.
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…Professor of sociology Richard Sennett, the expert interviewed on the programme, agreed that there was some truth to the notion that the “British unemployed were simply unwilling to knuckle down to hard work.” But he also pointed out that it is unfair to compare them to immigrants who were often young and worked hard to put aside cash for a better future back home. Immigrants, he said, saw these jobs as temporary, so they were “willing to put up with the crap,” because they were not planning to do such work for the rest of their lives.”
But in fact there is often nothing temporary about the move made by immigrants, at grave personal risk, from a home thousands of kilometers away.
This was the case with 41-year-old Harbhajan Singh. The Punjabi Sikh had spent over ten years cutting down trees in the central Italian countryside for Trulli Vittorio, a timber company. I had scrambled up a low hill over thick, thorny bramble to get to the clearing where Harbhajan and two other Punjabis were felling trees on a Saturday afternoon.
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. 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 7:00 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 the Indians often worked for as little as 3 or 4 euro an hour.
Sikhs at the Gurudwara in Sabaudia in central Italy. (Photos courtesy of Pallavi Aiyar.)
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 Punjabis 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, a clean-shaven Sikh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. “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 (Punjabis) 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. Punjabi agricultural immigrants in Italy constitute the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the U.K. 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 some 14,500, but in regions like Lombardia in Italy’s North West this number rises to 46,372. The vast majority of the Indians in the country are Punjabi Sikhs 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 Indians to go on strike, the country’s production of cheeses like Parmesan and Grana Padano would shut down.
“You know, Italians don’t like to It’s worked well because they (the Italians) see the Indians as reliable, enterprising and quite docile.work in the fields,” explained the First Secretary in charge of information at the Indian embassy in Rome expansively “Italy needed labour and since the late 1980s Indians have been providing it. It’s worked well because they (the Italians) see the Indians as reliable, enterprising and quite docile. They work hard and don’t demand things like some of these others…” the First Secretary left the rest of the sentence dangling complicitly 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. 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 had 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 had made from Punjab to Europe after paying an “agent” in India three lakh rupees (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.