This Isn’t Work, It’s Exploitation

Marta Fana
Bethan Bowett

Italian workers occupy an ever-lower place in the European division of labor.

Workers cleaning the Trevi fountain in Rome, Italy. fabulousfabs / Flickr

Interview by
David Broder

Italy’s governing Democratic Party (PD) looks set for defeat in next March’s general elections, with both the Right and the Five Star Movement (M5S) on the march. Even amid soaring youth unemployment and two decades of economic stagnation, there are at best scattered signs of renewed social struggle.

What explains the weakness of the Italian labor movement? What role do European Union policies, mass emigration, and precarity play in defusing labor struggles? Or are there instead grounds to resist the narrative of a pacified Italy? David Broder spoke to Marta Fana, author of the recent book This Isn’t Work, It’s Exploitation (Non è lavoro, è sfruttamento). A labor activist, Fana is also well-known for her sharp TV exchanges with the spokesmen of Italian business.


You have often talked about the dismal state of workers’ conditions in Italy. How does this compare to other European countries? How far should a measure like the recent Jobs Act be seen as part of a wave of deregulation, like with Hartz IV or the Loi Travail [France’s recent anti-worker legislation]?


The Jobs Act is part of a liberalization process that we see across the entire European Union. There are, however, two differences between the various countries. In France, despite the 2015 Loi Travail and the follow-up introduced by Macron’s government, workers’ protection is still stronger than it is in Italy. In Italy the twenty-year process that began with the Pachetto Treu [labor contract reforms under Romano Prodi’s center-left government] in 1997 has overturned industrial relations completely. It first allowed the segmentation of labor — as the Hartz reform also did — with the introduction of highly precarious forms of labor (temp agencies, ever more liberalized and flexible short-term contracts, and the voucher system of payment for casual work). This was followed by the dismantling of the protections that had been in place for workers on permanent contracts, with the abolition of the guarantee against redundancy in the Workers’ Statute.

The Jobs Act is nothing more than the latest installment in this process, which has been far more aggressive and fast-moving in Italy than in other countries. Moreover, it is important to remember — not that this should in any way excuse it — that in countries like Germany and France, the flexibilization of labor has in part been softened by the existence of a universal benefits system, even if a conditional one, while in Italy these social protections have never existed. Finally, it is important to remember that while in France and Germany the devaluing of labor was accompanied by investment in production able to raise productivity and thus also boost their hegemonic position within the European Union, Italy has chosen to use cutting labor costs as its one and only strategy for making sure its industries remain competitive.


What effect do you think recent labor reforms have had on unemployment?


The most important effect of social security reforms is that they have made unemployed people more vulnerable and more easily exploited when they enter the labor market. As a result of cuts to social security payouts (as social spending has been reduced), workers are forced to accept ever more degrading forms of work, both in terms of wages and in terms of working conditions.

At the same time, the liberalization of contracts and the shortening of contract lengths has in part changed the composition of the unemployed. On the one hand, the number of people who find themselves consistently without work has increased, and on the other hand those who do manage to work are often underemployed (for instance, as a result of the boom in compulsory part-time contracts).


In your book you wrote a message to the Italian minister for labor and social policy Giuliano Poletti, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, saying “You have made us Europe’s serving staff.” What do you mean by this?


The impoverishment of labor in Italy is fundamentally based on two cornerstones of the European system: the impoverishment of the structure of production, and the devaluing of labor by labor market reforms. As I have written recently, the problems with employment in Italy, and of youth employment in particular, are not the result of a lack of skills and qualifications among Italian workers. On the contrary, this is a question of the quality and quantity of the demand for labor.

In the context of a process of deindustrialization that has been going on for more than a decade (since even before the crisis), this generates unskilled work with low salaries. This second aspect, the impoverishment of salaries and of workers’ rights, is the consequence of policies that put business and its interests (profit) at the center of the world. Meanwhile the cost of competition in an export-led economy with a fixed exchange rate system is dumped on labor.

So the meaning of this is that following the transformation of Italy’s productive sector its place within the international division of labor has moved toward the bottom, where production is confined to sectors of low productivity and low potential for innovation. This is obviously taking place in a context where the balance of forces is ever more unbalanced in favor of business.


Poletti has made also remarkable comments about youth moving abroad, suggesting that young people were “getting in the way.” There is also a rising narrative, as expressed by Eataly boss Oscar Farinetti, bemoaning the culture of complaint that acts as a barrier to growth. In what ways are business circles and even the PD stigmatizing workers’ rights and protests?


In Italy, it has become a tradition to denigrate workers and especially young workers: “choosy,” “big baby,” and “loser” are all adjectives which government ministers have used in the last few years. While they precaritize work and cut public spending, and especially education spending, they indulge themselves in telling us that if we emigrate it is actually better for them, because they will not have us bothering them anymore, as they would not want anyone trying to resist their policies.

At the same time, the new wave of capitalists who style themselves as progressives while they exploit workers as much as anyone, preach to us that we should pull up our sleeves (as if getting up every day to go to work for free, or working while studying full time to pay the fees, was not enough). Moreover, according to people like the Eataly boss Oscar Farinetti we need to have faith in the bosses but also stop putting trust in politics (again directed at workers and never at businessmen, who do indeed trust in politics: just think of the €16 billion in exemptions from social security payments granted to them by Renzi).

When someone then points out to them that it is impossible to trust people who exploit, or that every year they take home eye-watering sums in profits while we, the workers, go home hungry and with no way to pay the bills, we are threatened with a lawsuit, as Farinetti did to me in person, on TV. It is very low for someone well-known as powerful to use the threat of a lawsuit as a weapon for discipline. But it is a clear expression of the position of authority that he has been accorded. These are capitalists who scream and shout about the inviolability of their authority to anyone that dares to present them with the facts and who refuse to accept that someone could question their rhetoric.


In your book you discuss the “new types of work,” from the gig economy to vouchers and the combination of school with unpaid part-time work. What effect does this reordering of work, and the working class itself, have on the possibilities for unionization and defense of workers’ rights?


In classical terms, these new forms of intensive exploitation of the workforce have certain traits which could potentially be interesting for an analysis concerned with the possibilities for unionization and class recomposition. As a result of recent legislation — the Alternanza scuola-lavoro — high-school students now find themselves forced to carry out unpaid work. We also have cycle couriers in the gig economy who are paid per delivery, what used to be called piecework, and so on.

Over the last few decades we saw a fragmentation of the workforce, resulting from the existence of a variety of different types of contracts among workers doing the same jobs. In this context it’s more difficult to bring about a convergence of interests and a collective consciousness, than in the case of workers who find themselves fighting against one same enemy, for instance piecework. So this fragmentation is declining.


It was recently reported that the Italian economy was experiencing a recovery. Are there particular sectors which are driving this recovery? Or are there particular sectors which are being painted as a route to recovery, e.g., service sectors and tourism? And if so, what does this mean for workers and workers’ struggles in these sectors?


To speak of a recovery is indeed very rash, but government rhetoric and propaganda is doing exactly this. We need to be clear: in Italy the total number of hours worked is way below pre-crisis levels, manufacturing as a whole is stagnant, and more than a thousand businesses have officially declared themselves in a crisis situation, in order to apply for support from the Ministry for Economic Development.

It is certainly true that GDP growth is positive (it is just over 1 percent). However, we should not forget that GDP growth has been accompanied by a growth in inequality: the value added created is gobbled up by the richest 10 percent of the population, while 18 million people are at risk of poverty.

In this phase of pseudo-growth the leading sector in terms of occupation is the third sector: logistics, tourism, and hospitality. All of these have low productivity and investment levels. For the workers in these sectors, the most striking evidence of this is the polarization between wages and profits, between workers’ rights and management authoritarianism. These sectors are in fact those with the highest incidence of violations of the nationally negotiated contracts, which stipulate for example the minimum wage and other regulations. They are sectors in which the organization of labor takes the form of an intense exploitation of the workforce, with shifts of over ten consecutive hours a day.

What is more, these sectors are characterized by the sporadic use of illegal bogus cooperatives to which recruitment is outsourced, especially in the logistics sector. In the retail and tourism sectors there is a similar process of outsourcing recruitment, though in this case it is managed by recruitment agencies rather than bogus cooperatives.

Tourism and hospitality have not seen high levels of labor conflict, a result of this sector’s fragmentary nature (bars, restaurants, and hotels employ only a few people at a time, and without established structures it is difficult to create a critical mass in these conditions of hyper-exploitation). But in the logistics sector, where workers have become conscious of the intensive exploitation and companies’ predatory activities, there are high levels of worker mobilization.


Last year the worker Abd Elsalam Ahmed Eldane was killed during a protest outside his workplace. This event was a shock for the Italian left and workers’ movement, but also pointed to the significance of the dispute. What is the importance of struggles in the logistics sector? Is this a terrain for an encounter between migrant and Italian-born workers?


To tell you the truth, the death of Abd Elsalam was a shock for only a part of the Left and for a part of what is left of the labor movement. Perhaps that is the most profound problem we are facing. The media entirely misrepresented the case, immediately touting the version of events given by the prefect which described the killing of Abd Elsalam simply as a road accident. Having said this, mobilizations in the logistics sector have spread at a fast rate (almost all the big oligopolists of the sector, DHL, SDA, TNT, and Bartolini, have been affected by mobilizations among their own workers).

Given the oligopolistic character of capital in the sector, workers’ struggles have a devastating potential. In terms of what they represent, these struggles reveal all the contradictions of our productive model and of the organization of production itself, where securing the loyalty of the consumer is hypocritically held up as the dictator of efficiency. And this efficiency is maintained through the intensive exploitation of those who assure the commodity’s journey from producer to consumer, thus allowing its valorization in terms of capital accumulation.

In terms of workers’ struggles, what has yet to be constructed are the foundations for a systematic point of contact between migrant workers and Italian workers in the logistics sector. Indeed, this problem has often exacerbated by the segmentation of the trade unions. However, in recent years some points of convergence have emerged: the solidarity expressed during the Amazon strike is one example. I think, though, that uniting the class again will only be possible if the struggles of the low-skilled logistics workers (who are often migrants) can unite with the struggles of the (mainly Italian) workers in the large retail and distribution sectors. Here, a coalition would be not only of a class nature, but it would also take place in the two nerve centers that form the end of the chain of capitalist accumulation.


Do you think that anti-migration politics is becoming a more central theme of Italian political life? Is this pushed by Berlusconi and the Lega Nord, or has it become more normalized? Are there mobilizations against this?


Yes, the issue of immigration is at the center of public debate in Italy, principally supported by the media that has for years unleashed a campaign of psychological terrorism to stir up fear. It is no coincidence that the growth of support for the Northern League has followed at a pace with the countless TV appearances of the Northern League’s leader, Matteo Salvini.

On these TV programs the debate has almost never involved more than one side of the argument or been based on fact, for instance the fact there is no “invasion” of Italy; to tell the truth, what we are faced with is more like a mass breakout, due to the high levels of emigration. But today the political axis regarding the topic of immigration has been radically shifted to the right, toward highly racist and intolerant positions: a very obvious example of this is the Minniti decree passed by the Paolo Gentiloni (Democratic Party) government, as well as the anti-immigration positions adopted by the Five Star Movement.


Italy is well known for its high levels of emigration. In my own time in Italy over the last few years I saw a lot of activists from the generation of the Genoa G8 protests and the mobilization against the Iraq War move away, and it seems like activist layers have themselves also been thinned out by this. Is emigration a kind of “pressure valve” weakening mobilization within Italy? Are new activist layers replacing those who leave?


Some of those who were there at Genoa have become party secretaries or leaders (for example, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, which is now Sinistra Italiana) . . . in fact I would be inclined to say that I am now not sure whether the problem is the ones who left or the ones who stayed in Italy. Sarcasm aside (though that is not entirely sarcasm), Genoa was not the last great wave of mobilizations in Italy. There was the period of 2008–2011 which was particularly active, with the student protests, the movement against water privatization, and the many mobilizations against austerity.

It is true that in the last few years there has been less capacity to produce mass mobilizations at the national level, but I am not not sure that we should see the causes of this as lying in emigration. If it is true that the emigration of politicized people produces a desertification, at the same time it is also the case that we are living through a period of weak politicization in general, accompanied by the fact that the under-thirties are consistently declining in number. In Italy we currently have a generation of under-twenty-five-year-olds who have never seen struggle. The causes are much more profound than emigration.

In any case, it is important to challenge the narrative of a pacified and dormant country. Italy is still today a country of struggle. Movements continue to aggregate and to fill the streets with protest, from the women’s movement Non Una Di Meno (Not One Less) to the students mobilized against the Altnernanza scuola-lavoro [enforced work placements for school students, of up to four hundred hours], as well as the communities struggling against large-scale development projects that are entirely useless to them (the “TAV” high-speed train in Val Susa, the “TAP” gas pipeline in the South, the incinerators, etc.), the housing struggles and struggles for migrant rights, and the thousands of local workplace struggles.

Not to mention the experiences of mutualism, solidarity, and organization that are daily being produced by the grassroots. In comparison with the past, what we are lacking is not so much struggles themselves, but rather the capacity to incorporate them into a social coalition, to bring together a dispute which is generalized across the whole country. I think that is the challenge today.


The Five Star Movement seems to have a strong base of support among the young and the unemployed. Do you see any possibility of a left-wing political organization of these same layers, able to compete against the M5s? How far do the base unions identify with party politics, and will their demands get a hearing in the coming general election?


Above all it is important to point out that the consensus among young people and the unemployed in support of the M5S is not based on social or workplace organizing because the M5S does not do this and in fact in the last year it has quite explicitly shifted to the right, for example on the issue of immigration and on tax (its candidate for prime minister Luigi Di Maio would like to replicate Trump’s tax reforms).

The real problem, then, is that at the moment there is no mass political organization in Italy, let alone a mass organization representative of the working class, and the mass left-wing parties of the past do not exist any more. The militant rank-and-file trade unions do not currently identify with a political party, except in some cases involving trivial numbers.

As it stands, a dialogue seems to be opening up between the rank-and-file unions through the medium of an alternative left electoral list. It is difficult to say at this stage how much can come from this catalyst: the rank-and-file unions involved do not have great numbers behind them and the political involvement of the masses they aim to represent is unfortunately not something that will be easily achieved.

However, aside from the unions, there is certainly a great mass of precarious workers, the unemployed, young “NEETS” [“Not in Education, Employment, or Training”] and the generally exploited who are in need of a political force capable of changing their situation and the country. The M5S currently catalyzes a large part of that rage, but it is highly likely that disillusionment lies just around the corner. I think that this is a fault line that could be used to form the basis of a new political alternative: to organize the not-yet-organized and give voice to those who have none.