By Roberta Manieri
Employers blame the crisis and the need to cut costs. From Italy’s South to the North, workers are being blackmailed into accepting increasingly exploitative working conditions, say unions representing workers in a sector employing around a million people
Quality, dignity and professionalism should go hand in hand with the job. Even more so in a sector such as tourism, where the relationship with the customer and their satisfaction are crucial. But in Italy, it is no longer the case. The crisis and the need to cut costs are blamed. The reality, however, is that the economic crisis hitting our country has highlighted many bad habits, so many negative aspects of an industry that, given Italy’s natural heritage, arts and culture, could act as a driving force for the whole economy. In good times, cases of mismanagement or cunning ploys to undermine wages are hidden, but in today’s difficult times, when travel and the number of tourists have dropped, and so revenues for the industry, they are coming to the fore.
To the endemic problems of our tourism industry – seasonal work, job insecurity and the tiny scale of companies in the sector – must be added economic difficulties, the sharp drop in demand, changes to the law that mean people have to work longer before gaining rights to social security benefits. On top to this, the bad weather this year has delayed the start of the summer season by almost a month. And in this context of uncertainty and worry for most Italians, those shadowy parts of the labour market that hide undeclared and irregular work, there’s increased pressure, including psychological pressure, on many workers in the industry, who in the face of economic desperation, are forced to accept worse conditions.
This is the case in the poor southern region of Calabria, where workers from outside the troubled service sector are pouring into tourism. People who are faced with no other choice, and are willing to accept anything: “The workers become more compliant and accept exploitative situations if there are no alternatives,” says Luigi Scarnati, regional secretary of the Filcams union.
The reduction in tourists weighs on the Calabrian economy . “Calabria is big, and getting around is not easy, with no public transport, and lately, not even with your car, given the increases in fuel prices. For the first time they are even laying off workers in motorway service stations. ” Meanwhile, there’s still no strategy to boost the economy, increasing to risk of a downward spiral of closing businesses, dying villages and fleeing tourists. In this climate it is almost impossible for workers to report working conditions that flout the law: “Furthermore,’ adds Scarnati, ‘there are not enough inspectors to make appropriate controls in the region..while the government has again cutback funding [for workplace inspectors]” .
A similar situation in the historic Lecce, the Puglian town in the struggling south that is plagued by a huge black jobs market. “Seasonal workers are turning to the union after they have lost their jobs, when they have run out of possibilities…or for help to get money [bosses] owe or because they need to apply for welfare payments,” says Valentina Fragassi, head of the provincial section of Filcams. Here, many foreigners from North Africa or Asia are mainly used in kitchens, and always with low visibility; hired officially for a month, they are paid for the rest of the season in the black. After the summer, the majority of these workers remain unemployed, only those who work in restaurants manage to find work in the winter. “Only in the larger hotels and permanent structures are unable to enforce the contractual terms and conditions – continues Fragassi – although not without difficulty, given the continuous outsourcing and the shortening of season, with the obvious consequences for the workers.”
From the south to the Adriatic coast at Rimini, where in recent months, several workers came to the union complaining about the proposal by some companies to be paid piece work. A growing phenomenon, especially in those workplaces where cleaning services were contracted out. Its a mode of work that affects the dignity of workers and puts at risk the quality of service to customers. “There are hotels that are speculating and are getting rich in a time of crisis – says Mirco Botteghi of the Filcams union. ‘There are pockets of lawlessness in our province that we must fight, to protect and and ensure they do not disadvantage those who want to work legally”.
On Italy’s other coast, in Versilia province in Tuscany, the music does not change. In the area of Viareggio, which extends along the coastline, there’s only work during the summer – in winter there is nothing but unemployment, save a month during a the carnival. Bartenders, waiters, hotel porters or lifeguards, many complain of lack of work, lack of investment. A shorter season, outsourced services, less work so much insecurity, “Absurd working conditions are accepted but people do not realize that they are like dogs chasing their own tails, because this simply undermines everyone.” So says a chambermaid of a large hotel, which when her employer decided to outsource her work, declined to accept a change in working conditions. But she was one of the few.
The union, currently negotiating with employers for the renewal of the national collective job contract in the industry, is resisting their excessive demands. They who want to keep costs down by limiting the job protection and work rights. “We understand the difficulties of the moment and we know we have to show responsibility in negotiations – observes Cristian Sesena, responsible for tourism in the national secretariat of the union – but the needs of workers must have equal weight to those of employers…’ In June, workers went on strike in a dispute against the catering employers, which has the cancelled the national job contract, and now strikes are being organised against the employers operating in beach resorts, which are demanding unacceptable conditions in a new contract.
Edit/translation by Revolting Europe