Death of Indian labourer highlights plight of farm workers in Italy

FILE PHOTO: Young Sikh migrant workers walk on a street of Bella Farnia, in the Pontine Marshes, south of Rome

By Romolo Tosiani and Alvise Armellini

ROME (Reuters) -The death of an Indian farm labourer in a gruesome accident in which his right arm was severed by machinery has put a spotlight the conditions of migrant agricultural workers in Italy, whom trade unions say are often employed illegally and exploited.

Satnam Singh, 31, died in a hospital in Rome on Wednesday, two days after being injured while working in a melon greenhouse in the Agro Pontino, a rural area south of the capital.

According to media reports, Singh was left outside his home after suffering injuries to his arm and legs, with his severed limb placed in a fruit crate.

"We heard shouting outside, the guy's wife threw herself at me saying, 'call an ambulance, call an ambulance'," a neighbour told RAI public television.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni deplored the tragedy as she chaired a cabinet meeting on Thursday.

"These are inhumane acts that do not belong to the Italian people, and I hope that this barbarity will be punished harshly," she said, in comments relayed by her office.

The owner of the farm, Renzo Lovato, expressed his sorrow over the accident, but said Singh had been warned not to get close to the machine that injured him.

"The worker did it his own way. It was carelessness, unfortunately," Lovato told RAI.

An investigation into Lovato's son, who allegedly left Singh outside his home, has been opened over potential charges of manslaughter and failure to assist a person in danger, the lead prosecutor in the case, Giuseppe De Falco, said in an email.

"He spontaneously went to the judicial police an hour after the events, as any decent person would do," Lovato's family lawyer told Reuters. He added that his client was waiting for the charges to be formalised to defend himself.

Responding to the allegation that Singh had been abandoned without calling an ambulance, the lawyer, Valerio Righi, said: "You will see during the proceedings that maybe help was called sooner than people think."

Some politicians and trade unions said the tragedy highlighted the broader issue of "caporalato", the illegal gangmaster system of hiring migrant workers common in the Agro Pontino and other parts of Italy.

Righi declined to comment on reports that Singh and his wife were employed illegally. Other details of the conditions in which he worked were unclear.

Maria Grazia Gabrielli, from Italy's largest trade union Cgil, decried an "event of unprecedented brutality", linking it to what she said were slave-like conditions endured by many farm hands.

"Exploitation in the fields very often results in starvation wages, unsafe and inhuman working rhythms and conditions, psychological and physical violence," she said in a statement.

According to 2021 data from national statistics office Istat, about 11% of Italian workers were employed illegally, rising to more than 23% in agriculture.

The Lazio region, which includes the Agro Pontino, offered to cover Singh's funeral costs.

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, responding to the furore over Singh's death, said the government was "first in line on all fronts to counter any form of exploitation at work".

(Additional reporting Marco CartaEditing by Keith Weir, Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry)