A screenshot from a police video showing police officers in Milan from Italy’s tax police force seizing assets as part of an investigation into the gangmaster system in the region of Lombardy | Photo: ANSA
A screenshot from a police video showing police officers in Milan from Italy’s tax police force seizing assets as part of an investigation into the gangmaster system in the region of Lombardy | Photo: ANSA

An NGO based in the northern Italian region of Lombardy has rescued two migrants who were exploited by gangmasters. Kali, a 23-year-old Indian man, and Irina, a 27-year-old Romanian woman, became victims of gangmasters after they migrated to Italy. They were aided by ''Lule,'' an organization in Lombardy that helps victims like them.

Migrants who become victims of the gangmaster system in Italy are paid very little, exploited and often sold across the country, even in the rich northern Lombardy region to where they migrated to build a better future. 
It is a common story for migrants like Kali, a 23-year-old Indian man, and Irina, a 27-year-old Romanian woman, who left their respective countries with the promise of new horizons but ended up in a spiral of exploitation, that is, until they were set free by "Lule," an NGO based in Lombardy that works to help people like them.

Kali, in debt to the gangmasters

In 2017, Kali became his family's sole breadwinner after his father's death. He was alone with four siblings and a mother to support and had to pay loans for medicines and the family's modest house. That is when he followed a friend's advice and sought the help of an "agent," or a migrant smuggler, he said in a recent interview.

After a long and exhausting trip by land with a fake stay permit, Kali was forced to accept a "contract" where he agreed to pay 8,000 euros to his "agent" for the trip.

"Seven of us arrived in Italy," he said. "We were housed in a place in Melegnano in a home with only men. Some were supposed to distribute leaflets, like me, others (were meant to work) in the fields but I was subsequently told that I needed to move to Cremona where there was urgent need for workers for the summer harvest." 

In August 2017, the youth started picking melons and watermelons. On paper he was being paid €6.70 per hour and working eight hours a day. However, he said that he was forced to "give back 2 euros an hour to my gangmaster, a fellow countryman, and we worked for over 12 hours a day. I also had to pay 150 euros a month for food, in addition to the debt for the trip, with a contract that stated that I was only working four days a month."

Kali lived in a home with fellow Indians who were divided according to caste and forced to obey the gangmaster out of fear and a kind of "gratitude" they felt for being given the chance to work. That is when the migrant said he understood he would not be able to help his family in such a situation and decided to make some extra money by selling bracelets in the streets of Cremona: "I was approached by the operators of Lule who saved me. Now I hope for a better future," Kali explained.

Irina, betrayed and sold

Irina arrived in Italy two years ago for sentimental reasons. She followed her partner who promised her that she could get a work permit. "We traveled through southern Italy, at first working in the fields of Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and then in Latina," she said. "I was hit and sexually abused both by countrymen who were workers and by my employer, an Italian, with the silent consent of my partner."

After understanding that she was taken to Italy under false pretenses, she became sentimentally involved with a Romanian man who promised her a new life in Bergamo, Lombardy. "I was de facto sold but I didn't know it at the time'," she said. "I started picking salads for 16 hours a day to repay my trip from Romania, under awful conditions," she explained.

Then Irina's life changed dramatically: "I was sold again and was forced to work as a prostitute, that is until I met with an operator from Lule."

The Lule operator, Marzia Gotti, who coordinates territorial services for the organization, said that "these people are treated like working machines, forced to work under the sun all day, without water, without perspectives. There are protocols to protect them and reintroduce them into society" which "we have a hard time publicizing," she added.

Lule, which is based in Abbiategrasso near Milan, supports and promotes the social integration of people who are marginalized, victims of exploitation and human trafficking. "We work in silence and have been providing assistance to the victims of the gangmaster system for nearly two years," continued Gotti. "It is at this point clear to everybody" that the gangmaster system "also exists in Lombardy, in the country's north, but too little is done to inform people" about how to report exploitation cases and how to seek help, she concluded.
 

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