Migrant workers’ struggles, their composition and facilitation in Italy

Posted: November 27th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: General, ricerca militante | Comments Off on Migrant workers’ struggles, their composition and facilitation in Italy

During the last decades, the global restructuring of capitalism determined significant changes in the Italian labour market and in the very organisation of labour: on the one hand, the implementation of laws and policies that led to uncontrolled flexibility, diffuse precarity and wild delocalisation. These mechanisms together led to the total de-structuring of an increasingly feminised labour, which is made to pay for productive and reproductive costs. On the other hand, the intensification of migration flows, significantly influenced by global economic factors, led to the introduction of coercive norms. Here, the control of mobility is totally subordinated to the productive system, in a context in which preoccupations with ‘security’ lead to the increasing reliance on forms of criminalisation and arbitrariness. Moreover, the changes that occurred in the organisation of labour and the extraction of surplus from bodies and subjects run parallel to a crisis of representation, of labour organisation and of trajectories of resistance, which pose the question of what forms of struggle can be put in place to face such transformations.

In such a framework, where exploitation and marginalisation are common to all workers, be they autochtonous or migrant, the latter are however subjected to greater structural vulnerability. Migrant workers, especially if from outside the EU, are usually relegated to the least paid and guaranteed jobs (and they are often, and increasingly, employed on an intermittent basis), in those sectors – such as agriculture; the construction business; logistics; domestic, sexual, and care labour – which register the highest levels of unregulated, informal employment. The exploitation of migrant labour functions through measures that add a further layer to the general control of labour mobility, in a system that effectively ties the right of stay to a work contract. The current immigration law, the so called Bossi-Fini Bill (implemented since 2002 and supplemented by the ‘Security Decree’ in 2009), institutes unemployment as a crime, given that the penal code formally punishes irregularity. Such measures make migrant workers more vulnerable and prone to accept any kind of working condition with regards to wages, working hours, social benefits. This compounds with the heavy reliance on unregulated labour that characterises many sectors of the Italian economy, such that even when work permits are obtained, the work contracts subtending to them may be purchased under the table through willing fake employers. These usually charge for their complicity, whilst labour is provided on an informal basis and thus without any guarantees. The lack of recognition of work rights is of course the rule for those activities, such as sexual labour or drug dealing (and, to some extent, street peddling) that are legally not recognised as work and are criminalised by various means. Given this, welfare measures such as unemployment benefits and pensions are often precluded to migrant workers, even if formally ‘regular’: in order to save on tax, fake as well as real contracts only record a minimum of working days, well below the threshold for access to benefits. Of course, the status of being undocumented determines a further level of exploitability. In all cases, political rights of representation are denied to non-citizens.

Furthermore, economic and political mechanisms of subordination and exclusion are compounded by symbolic boundaries, racism, patriarchy and xenophobia being widespread, and by social and cultural barriers. All these contribute to isolate and frighten migrants who in some cases are therefore deprived of the means to even access those rights the are in fact entitled to (such as healthcare and social housing). By virtue of all this, the burden of reproductive costs is all the more dramatically placed on the shoulders of migrant workers, and in particular on women. Since the beginning of the 1990s, women represent the majority of the migrant population in Italy, employed mainly in domestic and care labour, as well as in sex work and in agriculture.1 Women workers are also discriminated in the labour market because of their gender, often earning less than men and being threatened with the loss of their job if pregnant.

Even those migrants who have the right of stay by virtue of their country of origin’s recent entry into the EU (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland) are not spared from forms of exploitation and marginality. This is due not only to symbolic and social discrimination, but also to the fact that they are often employed in seasonal forms of labour organised and heavily controlled from the point of origin of the migration flow, whereby gangmasters exert extreme forms of control on the workers. In many cases, mechanisms of exploitation of migrant labour border on, or fully embody, forms of slavery. The current economic crisis, and the consequent increase of that ‘army of reserve labour’ that decreases labour costs, exacerbate the picture. Of course, the availability of cheap and disposable labour erodes the rights of all workers, regardless of their nationality, and therefore invests Italians too.

However, the structural rift that separates migrants from Italians also extends to trajectories of struggle. In many occasions, migrants’ conditions of precarity and isolation make it harder for them to advance any claims to rights. Or, when such struggles do occur, often they do not entail alliances and solidarity between migrant and Italian workers, and might expose internal divisions among migrants themselves. Such fragmentation and isolation are another instance of power’s control on subjects, exerted through myriad forms.

On the other hand, on several occasions in the last few years migrants have demonstrated that despite their structural isolation they are capable of putting in place tactics of struggle that defy their exclusion. Likewise, several militant groups and civil-society associations have supported their stance. The first strike, self-organised by migrant farm labourers from Masseria Boncuri, Nardò (Apulia) in August 2011, is perhaps the epitome of a process of struggle where migrants themselves, who acknowledge one another beyond national borders, recognise the issue of work as central. The struggle of farm labourers in Boncuri ignited from the ground and was effectively built horizontally by workers. That of the Masseria was a unique context, where a collaborative form of organisation was experimented by two associations that actively involved migrants in daily management. It aimed at combining the provision of adequate housing for seasonal workers (beds, lighting, legal assistance, national health service centre, Italian language school) with the regularisation of illegal labour, though a campaign of sensitisation and information on worker’s fundamental rights (“Ingaggiami Contro il Lavoro Nero”). Underlying the whole housing project was the principle that it should function as an ‘open camp,’ thus going against the normalising logic proper of institutional projects (so-called ‘accoglienza diffusa’) that tie access to possession of valid permits of stay and police entrance and exit. The strike received institutional recognition when a bill was approved that outlawed the figure of gangmasters. However, besides ignoring landowners’ much heavier responsibility and greater power in the exploitation of labour, it re-institutes the possibility for labour to be paid at piece rate.

Besides its controversial outcomes, the Nardò strike marked a shift in the emancipatory process of migrant workers. It represented a positive evolution from the outburst of the Rosarno riots in 2010, where the marginalisation of African workers and episodes of physical and verbal abuse against them led to an understandably violent response, later giving rise to collective political practices in those cities where workers were forcedly deported (e.g. the Rosarno workers assembly in Rome). At another significant site of intensive agricultural production, such as Castelnuovo Scrivia (Piedmont), in the summer of 2012 workers and allies also staged a spontaneous form of protest against their exploitation. Also in 2012, in nearby Saluzzo (Piedmont), migrants and anti-racist activists protested against the lack of housing provision for the large number of seasonal workers in the area.

Since 2008, migrant workers in the logistics sector and self-organised trade unions have also been calling strikes and blocks in areas of northern Italy such as Pioltello and Basiano (Lombardy), Piacenza and Bologna. Forms of collective action by migrants and allies demonstrated how labour exploitation, in agriculture as in other sectors of the production system, are pervasive from the north to the south of the country. The degrees and forms of violence and marginalisation are of course variable, for the most part related to the number of workers, and especially of seasonal labourers, by the distribution and management of property and their relation to laws and institutions. The agricultural sector is perhaps the domain where workers’ exploitation and marginality are more evident, with the creation of full-blown ghettoes. Different experiences of militance on the ground, and the related analytical considerations, therefore, need to be tuned to the specific contexts in which they intervene.

The practices which the network ‘Campagne in lotta’2 built and implemented during the summer of 2012 in the ghetto of Rignano Garganico (Foggia, Apulia) represented an attempt to break the isolation of migrant farm labourers, who in the hope of finding work are forced to rely on the control of gangmasters in situations of social and geographical isolation. Besides male farm labourers and as a consequence of their presence, migrant women also live and work in the ghetto, as prostitutes and providers of other reproductive services (mostly in the restaurants and bars set up in the shacks). The Italian language school, the bike workshop and above all the pirate radio, that were set up and run in collaboration between migrants and activists, created spaces of free discussion and debate on issues related to the conditions of work and of exploitation, in a peculiar context in which pervasive control over migrant workers is a structural feature of the ghetto itself. This militant experience finds its strength in collective and horizontal action, through the application of different practical and analytical skills. It aims at understanding the complexity of the reality on the ground, to be able to act in support of workers’ claims, first and foremost by providing to the workers means of information on the services available on the ground and of awareness-building on work rights. Such tools could facilitate their self-organisation, although in a context such as that of the ghetto this proves extremely difficult because of the isolation it engenders, which is of course instrumental to the exploitation of workers.

Given all this, several possible analytical avenues open up. First of all, when observing and analysing the current work conditions in Italy, and building practices that directly connect with workers themselves, it is immediately apparent how, despite their differences, all productive sectors are permeated by dynamics of exploitation, and how work in general represents the sphere in which capital saves on its production costs. The second point concerns the fact that the total de-structuring of work conditions does not concern migrants alone, but involves (and in some cases with the same intensity) Italians too. It is enough to mention the numerous struggles that currently invest the country, from the workers of steel plant ILVA, that led to the mobilisation of the whole city of Taranto, to the ongoing strike of Sardinian factories and mines of the Sulcis region. Thus, the precarious working conditions, now shared by all workers, should lead to the birth of moments of exchange that aim to build unitary forms of struggle – also given that being a citizen no longer ensures those guarantees that were once taken for granted, as a consequence of the total precarity in which the quasi-totality of workers seems confined.

1According to the latest report compiled by Caritas-Migrantes, women among non-EU citizens amount to 51% of the total, numbering 2,370,000 (Caritas-Migrantes 2012, Dossier Statistico sull’Immigrazione, 22mo Rapporto. Roma: Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS ). Women would represent 41,8% of the total of non-EU workers, and are the large majority (80%) in care and domestic labour (Fondazione Leone Moressa 2012, L’Occupazione Straniera: Esiste un Effetto Sostituzione? La Presenza Straniera nei Settori di Attività e nelle Professioni. Venice: Fondazione Leone Moressa. Available online at http://www.google.it/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&ved=0CDcQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.fondazioneleonemoressa.org%2Fnewsite%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2012%2F02%2FOccupazione-straniera-per-settori-e-professione.pdf&ei=wTfkUN7FEPTV4QSG4YCABQ&usg=AFQjCNGAcbBrEh1_N4OlOjdeokOQsnp8xQ&bvm=bv.1355534169,d.bGE, accessed 2nd January 2012). Of course, statistical data does not take into account unregulated forms of labour.


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