Interview to M. (Non Una di Meno Transterritoriale Marche, Italy)

We publish an interview to M., activist and sanitation worker. Women are 70% of the workers in the multi-service sector (providing services such as sanitation of factories, schools and hospitals), and most of them are migrants. They haven’t had a contract renewal for 7 years and for this reason on Friday 13th November they went on strike. M. discusses how the definition as “essential” worker goes hand in hand with an economical devaluation of the jobs and with limitations to the right to strike. Starting from this, she states that any general claim that does not take into account the way in which women and migrant women are hit specifically in pandemic times, risks to do the interests of the employers. While the feminist movement in the world and Non Una di Meno in Italy are getting organized for November 25th (the international day against male violence), the challenge is to articulate a collective action that can give voice to the essential struggles of women workers and migrants who are stubbornly fighting to assert themselves against the violence of exploitation. A very important contribution towards the discussion in the public online assembly of E.A.S.T. on Sunday 29th.

First published on Precarious Disconnections.

On Friday, the multi-service sector went on strike because the national contract has not been renewed for more than seven years. What was the participation and composition of the strike?

First, it must be considered that the strike was different from the past: since the government defined us “essential workers”, you understand that those who carry out primary activities cannot escape from providing the service because their jobs are considered essential for the health and security. The last Decree issued by the Prime Minister actually affects the right to strike. Being an essential worker becomes a trap. It is not by chance that the Confederation of Entrepreneurs suggested the word ‘essential’ in the first Decree in March, making it a noose around the neck. For this reason in many workplaces it could not be called an 8-hour strike because the needs of sanitation did not make it possible and the strike had to be fragmented. However, the participation was very high: 80% in companies and 100% in public and private nursing homes. The strike was called for the renewal of the national contract, which sucks.

Women are 70% of the workers in this sector, and most of them are migrants. Within the trade union platform there is never any reference to these conditions. What does this indifference produce within the struggle?

When we talk about struggles and strikes, differences are often made invisible by using a neutral terminology. But we know, as feminists, that nothing is neutral. Not talking explicitly about certain conditions means not considering those asymmetries of power and domination linked to race and gender. We talk about class struggles of sanitation workers or other sectors, but we forget that not to talk explicitly about women or migrants means not to see the differences that also exist in the possibilities to struggle. As a white person, I can strike more easily than a black or migrant worker. Writing the claims, without taking this into account, turns out to help the employer.

Employers’ violence exploits these differences to affect and prevent alliances between women workers. Non-white women often have to accept any condition in the multi-service sector. That is why they are over-exploited. Struggles are not all the same and we are not all the same in the workplace. There is a difference between women workers and men workers. If we do not consider this difference, it’s problematic. Participation in the strike was 80%, but for example migrant and non-white women preferred to go on strike for only two hours. Not because they were less combative, but because they can be more easily blackmailed. Wage conditions are always linked to material conditions of class and race… This is also clear in the way they select workers in the multi-services: employers choose single women, over 40 years’ old, migrants and of foreign origin. They did not expect that we would strike, but you have to know that it is not possible for everybody and you have to acknowledge the effort made in going on strike. The feminist strike of the last five years in this sense has taught a lot and this vision should pass through all unions.

How is the relationship between women workers in your sector and the union?

Until March, the number of women unionized in Italy was 20%, but I had none in my workplace. After the decree of March, “Ricresci Italia!”, there was a considerable increase… I keep on quoting the decree because if you read it you could rewrite the whole class history that happened in the last 7 months. A clause stated that companies that have workers positive to Covid have no legal responsibility towards them. At that point, the presence of trade unions became very important. We can see how unionized women are mostly white and Italian women, and yet in my sector most are migrant women with a residence permit, but they are not members of trade unions because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Moreover, it is often migrant women who substitute us while we are on strike: they are the shock absorbers… This is a challenge for all trade unions: to protect migrant women. Given the low employability of women in general, and those with a residence permit in particular, they are the ones to whom employers change shifts more abruptly. I think that the multi-service struggle is also central to the feminist movement.

This strike took place during a second lockdown during which the schools closed. How do women workers manage to struggle under these conditions?

Precisely because of the lockdown, I think that a reflection on work should play a central role in the feminist movement at the moment. We worked at a panic pace on Friday: 20 people in quarantine and 8 positive cases in the wards. Imagine a woman with a residence permit thrown to work in this situation. It is absurd: she has no one, she is alone. And even more absurd is that none of us have been tested. We are the only sector where it is not done, I had to do it privately, paying 75€, where can a migrant woman find them? The issue of health is closely linked to work and we have to keep it in mind. The threads that link race, gender and class are constantly coming back. These connections are continually re-proposed by the patriarchal system.

Could you tell us something more about how have working conditions changed in the months following the first lockdown? How did the fact of being women and migrants affect the reorganization of work?

I look at the world and society from the factory, I didn’t study, but reading the texts of some feminist comrades, the processing is automatic for me in the workplace. In this period there were possible connections of struggles that could intertwine and have a potential… But I also see the limits of this condition, which is still not exploding. What feminism can do now is a complex reading of reality. The factories are like an open-air sociology manual and it is interesting to look at how human resources are trained because they already have the preparation to face these conflicts, a preparation that we often do not have, we have the instinct on our side. As I said before, the conditions of a strike are different for women and men. The male workers in my sector are lucky enough to be able to strike for eight hours. Well, the wife at home has already prepared everything: ironed, cooked, cleaned, looked after the children… the woman, on the other hand, has to do those four hours of strike fighting with twice as much work. Even the unions often blame women. I think it is important not to blame women because they are shopping while they are on strike: we have to acknowledge the problematic knot that locks them in a gender role that we have to fight constantly. The double role of women’s work, paid and unpaid, is never recognized.

How does the “hour bank” and the shift system that characterizes this sector work? How does it affect the lives of women workers and how are these forms of “flexibility” used by employers?

The hour bank is a sort of mixed part-time system. In multiservice sector  the contract is 65/70 hours per month and is closed: it means they pay you based on those hours. The hours worked, however, are more and more and are part of the extra hours that the company requires, including sanitation. They should be paid more because they are extraordinary, but instead they are “frozen” and counted according to the company’s needs. For example, when you should have holidays they use these hours as days off or during production stops. In this way they are used as shock absorbers and are not paid extra, but normally. In multiservice sector this system is very heavy: there are always extra hours to do, especially during this period, with sanitation. In addition, these “frozen” hours are used when there is quarantine, instead of the wage integration fund. Some companies have only started the redundancy fund after these extra hours have been used up, thus saving on labour.

Have the subsidies provided by the government during these months, such as the babysitter bonus, produced a real improvement in the lives of women and working migrants?

The babysitter bonus is in fact the state that provides you with a rate of 8 euros per hour, but in fact the hours worked are always much more than those declared. I am totally against this bonus because it puts into circulation a system of exploitation by the State. I am really puzzled by the emphasis it has put on promoting it: it is a help for women at the price of exploiting other women. It is a patriarchal measure. In fact, it happens to be usually migrant women. But do we really have to treat migrant women like that? A woman cannot live with 500 € per month: on one side we have a worker in the multiservice who takes 650 €, on the other side another one who takes 500 €… Can’t women aspire to anything more? Women have to be the poorest. This is what the babysitter bonus tells us: in order to work we have to exploit another woman. Some feminists have supported this measure, claiming the need for services and equal rights. But at what price? By exploiting other women. I refuse, my independence will not be written on the skin of others.

In the decrees and legislation produced in these pandemic times, they talk about “essential jobs”. Beyond the definition made by the confederation of entrepreneurs, it is clear that these essential jobs are the result of a specific patriarchal and racist devaluation of labour. How is it possible, starting from these conditions, to give a boost to feminist initiative, towards and beyond November 25th and the mobilization against male violence?

As you say, the head of the Confederation of Entrepreneurs gave the definition of “essential”, when it called the unions, which are also partly responsible for this definition. But who is essential? We have schools, healthcare, social services, multiservices, carers… all places where there is a very high rate of women employed. These are the essential areas and it is clear that there is a patriarchal system. The challenge that feminism has to accept towards and beyond November 25th is to react to this systemic violence that constantly refers to the maternal leverage and the caring nature of women. They told us the same thing; they told us that “self-denial” was necessary. With the decrees they rewrote our biorhythm. We must know that the violence we suffer at work adds to the violence that many of us live in their own homes! It is all connected, we need to know it and visualize this connection because it is very strong. We are not always strong, we are saturated, full stop! When a woman struggles is because she really can’t take it anymore! This 25th of November will be complex, but I think it is important to start from where we are, and it is the challenge that the pandemic also poses to us, we have to understand how we can struggle now. Perhaps, what the feminist movement still needs to do is to read the effects of the management of the emergency on women’s lives. Even within Non Una di Meno we must always keep in mind that you always start from the bottom and then you go upwards. We must not respond point by point to the government’s measures, but understand from it what our future battles are. We know that mass layoffs will fall on women, they are always the first affected. We know that women have pensions under 700€, and that women suffer the most this situation. 25th  November is not only gender-based violence, but violence in various forms and work is central to this. Those of the Confederation of Entrepreneurs, when we went on strike, insulted us! They would like us to be silent and submissive. But we don’t keep quiet, and they didn’t like that all the newspapers reported our struggle! Our struggle was very powerful, because all the women were there, all of us! Because the struggle of the multi-service sector is a class struggle, because we are the last, but we know how to do the math in our pockets and we have no intention of stopping.