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Italy Has Finally Shut Down Nonessential Workplaces. We Should, Too.

Last night Italy’s prime minister declared that all nonessential workplaces will be shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19. For two weeks, social distancing has been undermined by employer pressure to keep production going. As contagion soars, other countries would be foolish not to learn Italy’s lesson.

A woman attaches a sign and closes the shutter of her beauty center, which has been closed by government regulations, on March 11, 2020 in Rome, Italy. (Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images)

Lombardy is the heart of the Italian economy, with almost a quarter of national GDP generated in this region surrounding Milan. But it’s also the epicenter of the spread of coronavirus in Italy, which has now surpassed China as the country with the most COVID-19–related deaths. As of March 21, Lombardy accounted for 3,095 of the country’s 4,825 dead.

Yet even ten days after Giuseppe Conte’s government locked down Lombardy to stem the contagion, there were alarming signs of what hadn’t changed. On March 18, Milan’s Camera del Lavoro estimated that as well as six hundred thousand employed in necessary jobs (health, food, cleaning), around three hundred thousand nonessential staff were still heading to work in the city — half by public transport.

Italy’s lockdown measures seem to have somewhat slowed the rate of contagion, with both death and infection numbers rising around 15 percent a day last week. Yet with intensive care capacity overwhelmed, late on Saturday night Prime Minister Conte made a televised address calling for a fuller shutdown of the economy, now to extend to all “nonessential” businesses.

Thus far it had been left to employers to decide whether to stay open — with bosses’ federation Confindustria lobbying hard to defend such “self-regulation” and warning of the economic risks of a generalized shutdown. The government offered payouts for laid-off workers and stepped up workplace safety precautions — but did not say that workers in general must stay home.

No wonder that Chinese health officials visiting Milan this week were shocked by how many people were moving around — a far cry from the shutdown in Wuhan, where new cases have fallen close to zero. Today, Conte’s government is, belatedly, beginning to right that wrong. But other countries heading in the same direction need to learn from Italy’s mistakes — and fast.

Employer Pressure

Last week, a raft of strikes and protests by local officials highlighted that businesses that were anything but “essential” — auto factories, arms manufacturers, shipyards — were staying open, even as their workers’ children had to stay home from school. On March 17 the government’s Cura Italia devoted €10 billion in extra funds for laid-off workers — but didn’t order all businesses to close, or provide guarantees for the majority still in work.

Some seek to present staying home as a matter of personal responsibility — Trumpesque tycoon Flavio Briatore denounced joggers as “criminals” risking others’ safety by going outside. In the week from March 11 to 18, over fifty thousand people were fined for being outdoors without reason — and 1,300 for false declarations of their reasons for doing so. Yet the self-certification form Italians had to compile did allow travel for “necessary work reasons.”

The problem was, industrialists lobbied to insist that workers should keep coming in. The Lombardy president of the employers’ federation Confindustria insisted that the factories were the “safest place to be” given the protections adopted. As recently as March 11 the region’s president Attilio Fontana (a member of Matteo Salvini’s Lega) insisted that it should be left up to bosses to self-regulate. By Friday, even he had to change his tune, calling for a full shutdown.

Beyond the sheer number of cases (which have risen from 5,883 to 53,578 in two weeks), it has become obvious that employers can’t be relied on to protect their workers. Take one of the companies profiting most from this situation — Amazon. After news of a worker testing positive at a depot in Torrazza Piemonte, on March 16 over a thousand employees at its distribution hub in Castel San Giovanni went on strike, denouncing the lack of safety measures. As one union rep noted:

People work closely at their workstations and are next to each other at other times: at the turnstiles, in the changing rooms, in briefings — always without masks because three weeks into this, Amazon hasn’t distributed any. We asked for a break of a few days to clean the area and reorganize shifts, but the answer was no.

Learning the Lesson

This is, of course, not merely an Italian issue. As Mediapart reports, this specific situation is echoed at Amazon France, where top management admitted that at a time of intensified orders, the company had not followed government hygiene or distancing advice “to the letter.” Equally, images of packed Tube trains in London highlight the fact that we can’t just choose to stay away — we’re at our employers’ mercy, unless the state steps in.

Such a shutdown is decisively needed in order to make social distancing a reality. But it will only be viable if everyone also gets the income they need to sustain themselves — whether or not they are formally employed. In this sense, governments have to do more than subsidize employers or provide tax breaks. In Italy, some two million (mostly women, migrant) workers are hired by families as home care workers, maids, and au pairs. But they’re left out of redundancy support measures, as are other informal and zero-hour workers.

The crisis has strikingly illustrated that public health concerns us all—faced with the spread of COVID-19 no one is really safe unless everyone is. But that doesn’t mean we all face this crisis as equals. Employers will still try and profit, and workers depending on the next paycheck will still have to work unless the state intervenes to ensure they don’t. For two weeks, Italy’s government has dithered, only to arrive at the full stop it always needed. Other countries must learn the lesson — and shut down nonessential work now.