The World

Italy’s Workers Are the Canaries in the Coal Mine

The first western country to be overwhelmed by the coronavirus is now ahead of the curve on its economic devastation.

A man walks through an empty square in Rome.
A man walks in Piazza Navona in Rome on Thursday.
Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images

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ROME—Only a few weeks ago, at the beginning of Italy’s lockdown, handwritten notes offering help started appearing taped to the walls of Rome’s palazzi: “Are you in a difficult situation, and would rather not go out? We can help you with grocery shopping and small errands. We live in the building, and in this emergency, we would like to help those in need,” one read.

But these have now been replaced by a different type of offer: “My name is Armando, I am a 50-year old father, I’m healthy, polite, and I cannot afford not to work. I’m offering my services for 10 euro an hour,” reads one in Rome’s Torpignattara neighborhood. “I will walk your dog, clean your house, do your shopping.”

Italy was the first European country to be hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, and its high mortality rate, nationwide lockdown, and close-to-collapse healthcare system should have been a warning to other governments. Most did not take heed, and the Italian story is being replayed in countries across the globe.

Now, Italy is foreshadowing other, worrying ramifications of the pandemic. With shops, restaurants, and the majority of businesses in their fifth week of closure, Italians are running out of money. While the beginning of the lockdown was characterized by a sense of hope—people gathered on their balconies to sing, dance, and reassure each other that “andrà tutto bene” (everything will be okay)—Italians are now growing increasingly weary. Everything, it seems, will most certainly not be ok.

Armando, the 50-year old father looking for work in Rome, has been an actor for over 30 years, but his last production came to a halt in early March due to the virus. “I was already going through some financial difficulties, and since this happened, I’ve had to look for different solutions. I’m not embarrassed about it. I think it’s the right thing to do.” No one has hired him to walk their dog yet, but he’s found work delivering for a sushi restaurant, and hopes to make about €600 ($655) a month, “which is something, in times like these.”

The government has sought to offer some relief, and the measures outlined in its 25 billion euro ($28 billion) “Cure Italy” decree, passed in March, include a suspension on mortgage payments in limited cases, a suspension of tax for some small businesses, and a one-off payment of €600 (approximately $655) for self-employed and seasonal workers. When the bonus became available on April 1, so many people rushed to apply that the social security website crashed within minutes.

While these measures might offer a temporary lifeline to some people, many others are excluded from any sort of government help. Without tax contributions that would qualify them for financial assistance, those who work in nero, or off the books — 3.7 million according to Italy’s official statistics office, Istat — are left with nothing, many unable to afford even the bare necessities.

A 30-year-old man, who asked for his name not to be disclosed, had been working in a startup that organized wine tours in the rolling hills south of Rome. “The company was going really well, until it all drastically stopped. I worked in nero, so I am not eligible for any type of support” he explains, resignation in his voice. “Italy is full of micro-companies like this one, where people work off the books, so I imagine there are countless people in my same position.”

Renata Semenza, a professor in Economic Sociology and Labor Studies at the at Milan’s Università degli Studi, says that it is difficult to predict how this crisis will affect the black market exactly, but one thing is certain: “Everything is connected, the informal economy is an intrinsic part of the formal, regular economy, so if one slows so will the other.”

So far, there has been little sympathy for informal workers by the political establishment. When Rome’s mayor Virginia Raggi mentioned on TV that she “felt close to people working off the books and who are suddenly without work”, she was vehemently criticized by opponents and political commentators.

Those working in the informal economy are not the only ones suffering the consequences of this lockdown. Recent changes in the Italian labor system and a move towards more flexible forms of employment—short-term or freelance contracts, for example—have led to precarious and unstable working conditions.

“The forecast for freelancers, people who are self-employed, or on short term contracts is very bad” says Semenza. “There will be a very significant drop in expected income for these groups, much more than for people who are regular employees. But the positive thing is that for the first time the Italian government has recognized these non-traditional categories, and is helping them [with the €600 bonus].”

But being in the system and paying taxes still doesn’t guarantee state assistance. Sebastiano Walter Tarda, 29, lives in Mascalia, a small town close to Catania in Sicily. After years of studying and saving, he finally opened a psychology practice in January, but was forced to close it a few months later. Because he didn’t have an income from his work as a psychologist in 2018, he doesn’t qualify for the government’s bonus or a similar relief package set up by a trade group for psychologists.

He’s one of the lucky ones, he says, because he lives with his family and doesn’t have to pay rent. But his mother doesn’t work, and his father, who qualifies for the government’s €600 bonus but doesn’t know when he will receive it, has had to close his sawmill business. The whole family is now living off the pension that Sebastiano’s grandfather, who also lives with them, receives every month. They don’t know how long that can last.

In the face of this uncertainty, tensions have been mounting in Italy’s poorer southern regions. A grainy phone video filmed in Naples and shared on social media shows a man standing at a supermarket checkout, unable to pay for his small basketful of pasta, oil, and tinned tomatoes. Other clients are sympathetic: “He can’t eat, you see? He hasn’t bought champagne and wine, he just wants the essentials.” Another video from Bari, in Puglia, captures a family of three, crying and screaming in front of a shuttered bank: “We don’t have any money, what are we supposed to do? Come to our home and see, we have nothing left.”

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has set aside 400 million euros ($436.5 million) for mayors to convert into food stamps, but that amount is unlikely to cover the needs of the thousands of people who have suddenly lost their income. Italians have set up makeshift food banks, leaving parcels on benches around the city, and local parishes are also stepping in to fill the void.

“It’s a really dark time” says Andrea Pupilla, a priest at the Caritas Diocesana (a church-run charity) of San Severo, in Puglia. “Over 2000 families have applied for the food stamps, and we are working with the council to help them cope. Many people around here lost their income from one day to the next, they have no alternatives.”

While there is no doubt that Italy is about to enter another difficult stage of this crisis, one glimmer of hope comes from the decreasing number of deaths: 431 on Easter Sunday, the lowest in three weeks.

In many parts of the world, however, numbers of infections continue to skyrocket, and the scale of job losses is without precedent. Just like the high-death toll, the lockdown, and the overwhelmed hospitals, the bleak situation of Italian workers should be a harbinger for the rest of the world.

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to Monday’s What Next.