Italy’s lockdown devastating for migrant workers

As the European epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic gears up to gradually reopen, essential workers still have little personal protective equipment and nonessential personnel fear for their jobs.

When Italy went into full lockdown in early March to contain the spread of Covid-19 pandemic, it was a crisis for the working class. Some fell into the category of essential workers, while others had their jobs put on hold. But for migrant workers who are mostly informally employed, the economic impact of the virus has been devastating.   

Souleye, 25, arrived in Italy in 2010 from Senegal. He is a metal worker and was about to finish his third year of apprenticeship in a factory in Villa Musone, near Ancona. His chances of getting a permanent contract were high until the pandemic hit the car industry. “I don’t know whether this crisis will affect my working position. I can’t stay calm until this is over, and we get more information about our future,” he said.

On 18 March 2020, the Italian government made available around 10 billion euros to strengthen the furlough system and grant wage earners 80% of their salaries. The government also put a halt to redundancies for the next two months (starting 23 February) and delayed the payment of contributions and mortgages, but this is not enough to reassure workers – even those better established in their factories, such as Shqiprim, 27, a Macedonian who lives in Porto Recanati, in central Italy. 

“Even if the state will pay our salaries, by not producing for so long, our factory will suffer huge losses. … So I am happy they found a way to safely reopen the productive activities since 4 May, because the cure can’t be worse than the disease. We are protecting ourselves from the virus, but in the long run, the governmental funds will end, and we could be at risk of starving,” Shqiprim said. His partner is unemployed, and they have an infant daughter.

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Mouad and his wife also recently welcomed a baby to their family, but this Moroccan couple’s joy was overshadowed by the economic consequences of the coronavirus, which led to a loss of customers at the fish market in Ancona. “We mainly cater [to] seafood restaurants in the city, so since they all closed we also had to close,” said Mouad, 29. He doesn’t know how the future will unfold but fears the worst. “I have an on-call contract, so I could be among the first to lose their job if this stalemate goes on.”

In the northeastern city of Gorizia, a town bordering Slovenia, frustration wells up in Sajra, 29. The Bosnian shop assistant emigrated to Italy in 2012 and was working in a shopping area in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region when the Covid-19 outbreak changed her life. She was replacing a woman on maternity leave, and her contract would have expired in late April, but she was told that there was a good chance she would replace another shop assistant who had recently resigned. “Who knows now if the employer will follow up his promises? In any case, I wouldn’t blame him … but it’s going to be very tough to find other employment while everybody cuts back,” said Sajra. 

Massive job loss

To meet the needs of precarious workers and their families, the government has allocated 400 million euros in the form of food stamps and food parcels, distributed to the 7 904 Italian municipalities. Italy’s three major labour unions working closely to safeguard workers’ rights are satisfied with the measures taken by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. 

They expressed their satisfaction in a joint statement, emphasising the importance of the adoption of a rigorous security protocol before giving the green light to reopen activities. Regardless of the security protocol, the tourism and catering industries must wait much longer to be boosted again, since they rely on the movement of people and socialising. 

A study conducted by the International Labour Organisation found that around 24.7 million people worldwide could lose their jobs. Among them, the most vulnerable are those involved in the hospitality industry. In the next few months they could swell the ranks of the unemployed, currently at 9.7%, according to a report released on 1 April by the Italian National Institute of Statistics. The Union of Commercial Chambers estimates around 200 000 workers in the tourism industry could lose their jobs. Trade unions and associations are developing a plan to promote “proximity tourism”, which will enhance small villages and towns rather than overcrowded destinations.

22 April 2020: Mouad in the parking lot outside his home after going to the supermarket. His employer has told him there is a chance he will start working again when the lockdown in Italy eases on 4 May. (Photograph by Alex Čizmić)
22 April 2020: Mouad in the parking lot outside his home after going to the supermarket. His employer has told him there is a chance he will start working again when the lockdown in Italy eases on 4 May. (Photograph by Alex Čizmić)

Adaptability is fundamental in times of crisis, so some restaurants have opted to start home deliveries in their municipalities. The one where Adeleke worked is one of them, but the Nigerian kitchen assistant wasn’t called back. 

“I started working in February, when I got a short-term contract as usual, and was waiting for April when I was supposed to get a longer contract until December, but the virus shut all down,” said Adeleke, 35. He is trying to figure out whether he can access the government’s social aid, which, according to the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration, is denied to migrants by some municipalities.

No protection for essential workers

As home delivery services increase in Italy, the spotlight has fallen on the terrible working conditions of delivery people – known as “riders” in Italian. 

They have no rights and no guarantee on payments, no help with the means of transportation in case of vehicle failure and, especially during this emergency, no personal protection equipment has been provided by the most popular companies including Deliveroo, Glovo, Just Eat and Uber Eats. 

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“Outside of the lack of protection, when the government put home delivery in the essential activities list, we were wondering whether a sandwich from McDonald’s is actually essential,” said Tommaso, 30, the spokesperson of Riders Union Bologna, an association dedicated to safeguarding the rights of riders based in the Emilia-Romagna region. “I understand that this service has become even more useful during this emergency, but let us make our job safe. We are considered … self-employed workers, but we are effectively employees without the possibility of benefitting from employee rights.”

“We dropped some leaflets within the community of delivery guys to protest against the lack of protection, but many of them rejected it for fear of retaliation,” said Lisa, 22, one of the few delivery women who crosses the city of Bologna. “I work for Mymenu, an Italian company which is taking care of their delivery guys, but I am aware that we are privileged, and I believe we should all unite to ask [for] better conditions.” 

Supermarket workers

Mario, 52, a truck driver from Naples, travels throughout Italy delivering meat to supermarkets, including to those in Lombardy, the worst-affected region. “I am extremely careful, and when I take a break at the truck stops along the highway I don’t even drink the free coffee that truck drivers are owed by law,” he said. “In the first weeks, when the country was forced into lockdown, people panicked and emptied the supermarkets and some of my colleagues preferred to not work for fear of contracting the virus. So I had to make more deliveries. One supermarket manager told me that they cashed far more money than during the Christmas period, which is typically the most profitable of the year. … We are often [the] object of [a] great deal of criticism, and we are unpopular because of some stereotypes that describe us as arrogant and rough while driving, but we are not all the same and without us everybody would have died today.”

Without truck drivers’ efforts, Pamela, 35, a mother of two who works behind a supermarket deli counter in Trodica, in the central province of Macerata, would have stayed at home like other citizens. “When this emergency broke out I was on vacation, and my colleagues were all complaining about the lack of timeliness in adopting … safety measures,” she said, recalling that “they were passing on to me their fear, and I hoped to be able to extend my vacation”. She could have taken the extra parental leave accorded by the government, but opted for coming back to work, because her husband, a factory worker, was sent home. But Pamela feels unsafe. “I had to get masks by myself, because there were none left at work when I came back.”

Perhaps the gradual reopening of the economy slated to begin on 4 May will help ease some of the problems faced by migrant workers in the country.

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