ITALY « Poor and economically and culturally disadvantaged neighbourhoods are the most affected »

Report n° 9 


Author : The redaction of Tribuna libera Date: December 29th, 2020 

1/ What have the consequences of the health crisis for the population been especially for the working class? What has the covid impact been on employment, how many jobs have been lost? 

The coronavirus and in particular the lockdown periods have created a real economic and social problem that affected the working and middle classes. In the wake of the decrees issued by the president of the council of ministers of the government, many commercial and small business activities those related to tourism, entertainment, culture and self-entrepreneurship have been closed for several months and are still partly closed. For workers in these occupational categories, the government has provided for a « compensation » scheme, i.e., small, purely symbolic compensations that many of them have not yet received. 

In the meantime, precarious and/or undeclared workers who were already living in poverty have lost their jobs and will find it difficult to find another one. For them, there is no compensation, even if here and there some municipalities or regions have allocated completely insufficient funds to increase the number of meal vouchers or small aids to the unemployed. 

Since the beginning of 2020, 90,000 companies have gone bankrupt and another 600,000 are in the red; in addition to that, 150 crisis negotiations have been started with the Ministry of Development (the best known are Ilva, Alitalia, Alcova, Whirlpool). In 2019, there were 4.6 million poor people; in 2020, with covid, their number has increased by one million. Who are those who seek aid from Caritas, the food bank and welfare restaurants? Those who have lost their jobs, the small tradesmen and women and holders of small businesses who have had to close down, those who do undeclared work, those on fixed-term contracts and casual workers. It is obvious that poor and economically and culturally disadvantaged neighbourhoods are the most affected (impossibility of being locked-down and isolated in cramped flats, difficulty and/or impossibility of turning to the health authorities for prevention and care). 

The government, fearing the workers’ reaction, was forced to block redundancies until March 2021, and to not reduce wages. This measure did not, of course, change the situation of thousands of workers forced to go into unemployment with an average compensation of about 40% of wages, always paid with great delay. True, “smart-working” (online work and other such new forms of work Ed.N), has certainly enabled many employees to continue working, but it is unregulated, has led either to an increase of the workload or the number of working hours. In smart-working, it is women who are the most penalised (as in the case of redundancies), because they are the ones who are mainly responsible for domestic tasks. At the end of the period of prohibition of redundancies, 300,000 jobs are expected to be lost and the destruction of one million jobs is quite likely in 2021 

2/ Are there any figures available concerning the lives lost of workers in general and particularly frontline workers, including doctors and other hospital staff? 

On 13 December, Italy can « boast » of reaching a horrific record: that of the country in Europe with the most deaths: 64,520 since the beginning of the epidemic. 

At the beginning of December, more than 28,000 nurses were infected in the workplace and 56 died; by 13 December, 257 doctors had died, 78 of them in the second wave. These contagions and deaths are due, first, to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and then to insufficient PPE (protection gowns, masks, gloves, visors) and to delays in diagnosis and tracing. At the moment, contagions and deaths are increasing alarmingly among teachers and school staff. The rate of contagion is higher than elsewhere, which proves that these staff are more exposed (by mid-November, 21,000 school staff and more than 80,000 students were infected). In total, from January to October 66,781 people (figures from INAIL) were contaminated on the workplace, and of course, health workers were the most affected. 

3/ What measures were taken or not taken by the government to cope with the pandemic? Were any wage deductions imposed by the bosses and governments? 

At the end of January, the pre-pandemic context was already known, but the organised response did not take place, and this is what caused the March disaster. In order to face the epidemic, it was necessary above all to stop the assembly lines, organise mass screening, even rapid screening, and retroactive tracing, starting from the two weeks preceding the contagion. The decision not to stop the assembly lines resulted in a loss of control over the situation. There was no ad hoc screening (by making military hospitals available, for example) with protected and trained personnel to detect covid cases and isolate them; thus, the virus entered hospitals and care homes for the elderly. 

This happened because « town and country » medicine was not put in place; hospitals filled up – whereas it was necessary to prevent the virus from entering them. In the following months, the necessary health organisation was still hadn’t been put in place. Shortly before summer, the government began saying « we have to live with the epidemic ». This new slogan (previously the proclaimed intention was to limit it, to isolate the clusters and prevent it from spreading) marked a renouncement: with the arrival of the summer, all activities were reopened to revive tourism and the economy. The fact that young people – but not only young people – can be particularly dangerous vectors was ignored, and gatherings were allowed as if there was no danger. In this way, the virus spread to families. While in March the virus was only present in a few areas of the north-central region (Piedmont, Lombardy, Valle d’Aosta, Veneto, 

Emilia Romagna), after the summer it spread to all the regions and it was no longer possible to speak of « limited clusters ». The decisions should have been taken early, quickly and well, but the decisions that had to be taken needed to be backed up by a sound public health system with the necessary funds for its proper functioning. 

On the other hand, the Italian health system appeared to be a breeding ground for the spread of the epidemic. The root cause is the cuts organised by successive governments over the last 30 years. Fewer hospitals, reductions in the number of beds, the destruction of thousands of doctor and nurse positions, privatisations and the end of regional medicine. It is not by chance that the provinces with the highest number of deaths (Brescia, Bergamo, Cremona, Lodi) are the ones with the proportionally least number of doctors. There has been total disorganisation in the testing (swabs not to be had in the beginning; delays in testing, with the result that the quarantining of patients was delayed, as was tracing). As of 10 October, and onwards, traceability has been out of control. Contaminated people circulate freely because of the absence of tests or because of the delays (in getting appointments and getting results). Isolation is prescribed too late and patients who test positive continue to go to work. While it is possible in the private sector to be tested with surprising speed – by paying, the public service refrains from carrying out control tests for people who have been ill, so they could return to a normal social life after a few days without symptoms. 

The same problem has arisen in schools where testing, tracing, class closures and the decision to isolate have been implemented with delay. All the regions have announced an increase in the number of hospital beds for covid patients, but these are beds taken away from other wards, which for months have been reducing their offer of care to the sick. Waiting lists for tests or surgery, already very long, are becoming endless, even for serious cases (cancer; heart disease), and prevention is completely out of the question. We have witnessed surreal situations: queues in hospitals with ambulances that cannot reach the emergency rooms for hours (many of them are sent from one hospital to another, even to another town), makeshift beds in the corridors, patients on the floor, lack of doctors, nurses, protective gowns for the staff. The government decided to reopen the schools, safely, in September, declaring that school was fundamental, but it did not organise the spaces and a really effective distancing (worse, it reduced the obligatory space between pupils defined by the previous standards, while both in the classrooms and in the school cafeteria, the number of pupils did not decrease). The hours of classes were not reduced, nor were appropriate masks for students and teachers provided. Public transportation, despite declarations of intent, has not been expanded and improved, and thousands of children are crowded into buses and trams on their way to school, carrying the virus. This is despite the fact that thousands of buses are not running, parked in private depots because of the absence of tourists. Online teaching has been introduced, first in universities and upper classes, and finally in middle schools, from the 11-12 age group onwards. 

The different types of « light » lockdown have not brought any real improvement to the situation. Government and regions pass responsibilities and decisions on from one to the other, creating unclear and confusing rules that are sometimes even contradictory, while various doctors’ associations are calling for a return to full-fledged lockdown. The second wave of the pandemic is dramatically worse than the first. However, since February, the government and the authorities have had 6 months to hire staff and organise genuine mass screening. 

4/ What new attacks against workers’ rights and democracy were launched by the bosses and governments during this year, as they took advantage of the pandemic? 

The slogan of the employers and the government is: « seize the opportunity of the pandemic” to lay off workers, to lower wages, to increase working hours, destroy workers’ rights and diminish the space for democracy. Especially in small businesses, where there is no union, the blows have been stronger: using the blackmail of lay-offs, employers have even managed to make laid-off workers work. It has to be said that, so far, they have not succeeded entirely. In fact, the strike in March in the big companies forced the government to decide to block redundancies, a measure which, from one extension to the next, now runs until 31 March. For the time being, this decision has momentarily removed the blackmail of redundancies, and reduced both the pressure on workers and the deterioration of working conditions. For the moment we have some breathing space, during which, however, it is the precarious workers who are paying a high price in the crisis – mainly women and young people. As it is difficult to attack what remains of the workers’ conquests at the national level, employers are seeking to do so workplace by workplace, through contracts that register the reduction in wages and worsening of working conditions. 

The government needs to diminish the spaces of democracy that the workers’ struggle could avail itself of. This attack on democratic spaces has been implemented by a reduction in the number of members of parliament, a reduction that will be applied after the coming elections. Fewer deputies and the number of parties certainly limited to three or four in parliament will reduce the time needed for voting anti-worker laws. Furthermore, the consequence of differentiated autonomy (regionalisation) – if it were to be implemented – would be the creation of 20 different legislations and employment contracts (one per region), making it possible to pass on to the regional level the blows that cannot be dealt at the national level. What will happen after 31 March? Destruction of 7% jobs is expected, i.e., almost a million jobs. According to the website theitaliantimes.it, this would condemn not only the workers who are made redundant, but the entire Italian economy. The government fears that after 31 March the workers’ struggle will resume – the struggle against redundancies, against attacks on labour laws and democracy. 

5/ For years, the number of workers in the informal sector has continued to increase. The fight against precarious labour must lead the labour movement to think about organizing these workers. The workers in the informal sector have paid a very heavy price in the health crisis. What has their situation been since March 2020? What reactions has this triggered? 

There are several categories of informal or precarious workers: those on fixed-term contracts; temporary workers; those working on false VAT declarations; members of cooperatives; those working illegally, etc. They all have in common that they have no guarantee of employment and are therefore subject to all forms of blackmail. Those who belong to the informal sector are the worst off; ISTAT figures show that from October 2019 to October 2020 employment in these sectors dropped by 473,000 jobs, including 381,000 fixed-term contracts. There is cheating on tax returns which hide undeclared jobs, with fake employment contracts and particularly low wages. Precarious workers whose activity was not stopped during the lockdown have been pushed to increase the pace, driven by a promise of employment, or blackmailed by threats of non-renewal of contracts. 

Unfortunately, the confederate unions did almost nothing to organise these workers (except in the education sector, where a national day of mobilisation was organised in mid-October). Trade unionists should go and talk to these workers, like in the film « Bread and Roses« . The Sicobas union is the only one which has managed to organise precarious workers (workers in cooperatives who load and unload lorries on transit platforms). Through their struggle, the workers in this sector have managed to secure pay rises and better working conditions. However, the organisation of these precarious workers is limited to this sector, to that of schools and other public services. One can imagine what would happen if the trade union confederations took over the organisation of precarious workers as Sicobas has done! Organising and fighting give results: the delivery workers of the just.it home delivery platform prove it: they have won a real work contract, an hourly wage and all the protections of a real work contract. 

6/ Women workers have also been particularly hit. They are the first to lose their jobs, the last to be taken back at their work places when they reopen. They have to take in charge their children deprived of schooling. Domestic violence has increased with the lockdown. What form has it taken? What mobilisations have taken place to defend the rights of working women? 

In Italy, working women are doubly affected by the pandemic, its consequences and the measures taken by the government. The double exploitation they undergo is even more evident and dramatic. They often work in sectors where the level of danger is highest (64.4-% of health workers and 83.8-% of home care workers are women). In the second quarter of 2020, 470,000 women lost their jobs compared to 370,000 men. This is because they are often employed in tourism, catering, retail and domestic work, the sectors that have seen the highest number of closures. These women have not benefited from unemployment benefits, nor from the decree prohibiting dismissals. The workload of women who have continued to work at home has increased exponentially. The division between professional and family working time has blurred, and they were often in charge of schooling their children and caring for their elderly. During the lockdown period, due to the collapse of the social assistance system, the burden of caring for the children was almost entirely shifted to their shoulders. 

Added to this is the explosive situation due to the conditions of isolation in which they have found themselves. During these months of lockdown, the number of complaints for domestic abuse against them has risen alarmingly. Over a period of 10 months, a total of 91 feminicides were recorded, one woman every three days; it should be added that during the first months of lockdown, 80% of the murdered women lived under the same roof as their murderer. For these women, the home – a place of refuge – became a death trap. 

The measures taken by the government to help women in concrete terms are insufficient. There is no strengthening of intervention services, no assistance, no immediate financial support. Yet worse, in Italy there are still women who are waiting for their April unemployment benefit to be paid. The government has put in place very few of the measures, which are totally insufficient, such as parental leave paid at 50% of the salary. In fact, this possibility has often not been taken up by women because their wages are too low. When jobs are destroyed, women completely disappear from records

7/ With the new technologies, the capitalists dismantle labour relations, restructure companies and destroy jobs. What are the consequences and what are the threats to labour relations in the coming period? 

Millions of workers have had to work from home as a result of the pandemic. After the first months of lockdown, home-based work was maintained and even today millions of workers have not returned to their workplaces. In most cases, this has resulted in accelerated exploitation: undefined working hours, lack of breaks, and difficulty in respecting holidays and days off. Theoretically, the law provides for the same conditions, the same hours, the same rights. But in practice, employers tend to assign precise tasks to their employees, which leads them to work beyond the statutory hours. 

For the time being, with this decree in force on the prohibition of dismissals, workers who have a proper employment contract have nothing to worry about. But afterwards, if this decree were to be brought to an end, employers could use home-based work to cut thousands of jobs. This is what the Milan trade union (from the PD) denounces: « Companies are thinking about a plan which they call an ‘efficiency plan’, a soft way of saying redundancy plan« . 

It should be added that “smart-working” has incited workers to stop going to bars and restaurants, which often have agreements with the offices. In reality, tens of thousands of workers in these bars and restaurants have had to stay at home because the premises were closed. Those who had a proper employment contract were able to receive unemployment benefits (about 2/3 of the salary), but those who worked illegally have lost everything. 

8/ What were the positions of workers’ organisations and their leaderships during that period? What were the demands? What was their attitude towards the plans designed by the bosses and governments? 

A distinction should be made between reactions « from below » and those « from above ». At the top, the union leaders have sought by all means to implement a policy of « general agreement » – agreement between the government, the capitalists and workers’ organisations. They claimed « that we can only get out of the crisis together, as a block ». They sought to hamper all demonstrations and mobilisations, for example those for the closure of factories (against contagion), or those to demand the necessary budgetary resources for health, to protect doctors and nurses, or to demand a return to school in accordance with health regulations. 

But « below » the mobilisations sought to take the opposite path: that of winning by fighting for demands. The most important struggles were those of March in the large factories of the north, in which the workers went on strike spontaneously. The union did not support the strike, it simply demanded the negotiation of a « security protocol » with the capitalists and the government. A first protocol was signed, but the workers demanded the closure of the factories, and for those which couldn’t close, they demanded greater security measures. So, the workers went on strike again and there they forced the management of the Fiom of Lombardy (CGIL metals/mechanics) to take a stand in favour of the strike. This is how most of the factories had to close, and a new safety protocol was signed. 

It was as a result of the strength of these strikes that the government decreed a ban on redundancies. 

In the health sector, too, there was a national strike on 8 June, called by the unions. In the weeks preceding and following this strike, a movement was developed by parents and teachers to return to school in accordance with health regulations. There were online assemblies, and on 26 June public meetings were held in 60 cities. Although it was an “online movement” it continued, and denounced the policy of the government which, during the summer, did not take the necessary measures. In the end, the government had to take some limited measures, certainly insufficient, but nevertheless real: the classes with the highest number of pupils were divided in two and the teaching posts were doubled; maintenance and assistance staff were increased in number, and the schools were given the necessary budgets to provide the necessary health security conditions. But the government has not organised real tracing, with mass tests and checks. At the end of September, under pressure from the capitalists, the government was on the verge of cancelling the ban on redundancies. But the workers’ reaction, in particular the steel workers of Genoa who spontaneously took to the streets against the dismissal of three workers and the suspension of 200 others, flagged the danger of a revolt. Thus, the ban on dismissals was extended until 31 March 2021. 

The trade union leaders, and especially Landini, general secretary of the CGIL, continued to claim that they had reached a « general agreement », but the class struggle remains on the agenda, all the more so as more than a million redundancies are announced, if the decree is reversed. 