As Leslie T. Chang reportage from industrial China – Factory Girls – shows, global capitalism has a peculiar way to relate with female workers. As they are on average less linked to unions and have a weaker position in society, they are in a certain sense the ideal workers: easy to grind down, to blackmail, to fire, to replace. This is true in China, India or even in Italy.
When speaking about women rights and gender equality, Italy is almost always ranked in the lowest part of the richest countries chart. Women earn less money, rarely have managerial positions in the companies they work for and have often to shoulder the weight of the family cares. And since the last years things have become even worse.
Average salary for a female worker was in 2004 7% less than a male worker. In 2010 the difference had grown until 20%. Since the blast of the financial crisis the percentage of unqualified work on women work has increased, even if women have higher educational qualifications than men and the number of graduates keeps growing. 40% of graduated women have an under-qualified job, while the percentage for men is 31%. Women are 40% of workers, but one out of two temporary workers is a woman. In young age, during the period in which one usually has children, women who work through a so called “atypical contract” (contracts where there are no protections in case of illness or pregnancy, and where vacations and working time are often informally fixed by the employer) are 28%, while men are 18%.
Factory girls and women are most of all employed in the textile sector, one of the most important economic resources for Italian industry, and one of the fields where ownerships have more often been using to dismantle the plants to relocate them where the work price is cheaper. Some of the most famous and renowned Italian brands are involved in this process, leaving the country to look for a more economical place to produce. And that’s not all.
Behind the label “Made in Italy” you can often find stories like the one that come to light the 3 of October 2011, after a building in Barletta, Southern Italy, collapsed, killing five women. They were working, sewing sweaters, in the ground floor for the owner of the building, with no contract neither any legal frame, up to 14 hours a day to earn 3,95 euros per hour. The day after the massacre, the little town major declared that the employers who keep their workers into unlawfulness don’t have to be considered such as criminals, because they provide job opportunities even during the crisis period.
And while it is impossible for illegal factory women to organize themselves and fight against their employers, women who work for some of the most important and famous textile Italian brands have started hard struggles against the relocation of their plants.
Omsa is a textile company part of Golden Lady, an Italian group which owns many European brands of underwear and socks. Golden Lady employs 7000 workers in the world, while Omsa workers are 347, most of all women. The story of the Omsa factory in Faenza, a small centre in the Emilia-Romagna region, is a perfect example of how global capitalism companies can act during crisis periods.
Omsa has never been in crisis, although during the last years many factories in the same territory haven’t been so lucky. In March 2010 the company workers went on redundancy payment and the management made public the decision to relocate the whole production in Serbia, where Omsa already owns three plants. The adduced reasons for that were merely economic advantages calculations.
The workers, obviously, didn’t accept the project, and started to guard the factory gates to stop the machinery dismantlement. At the same time, they began a campaign to spread the boycott against Golden Lady’s brands, which cover the 50% of the Italian market in their field. Although the case gained the attention of the entire nation, as yet Omsa’s workers haven’t received any answer about their future from the company management.
CGIL, the biggest Italian union, has kept an ambiguous position in the Omsa affair: in march 2011 it substituted its local coordinator, who engaged in a hard struggle against the company’s management. Many workers abandoned the union in protest.
- La Perla
La Perla is one of the most famous luxury lingerie brands worldwide. 95% of its workers are women and they sew items that are often priced over 500 euros each and sold in the more exclusive boutiques of the planet. The company is born and based in Bologna, but in 2008 the ownership passed to an American found, which started a drastic reorganizational plan involving the dismissal of 335 workers out of 655. The factory had to be moved to China, and the women, the workers said, had to be left at home, where they belong. “We won’t be housewives anymore”, they said, and started a trade dispute against the ownership decision to close some plants and to slash the number of employees in others.
In Bologna, one of the most richest industrial and commercial centres since the post World War II period, when La Perla was founded, the protest had a particular meaning: the high quality Italian industry, which had allowed millions of people in the whole country to get themselves out of poverty and had caused an epochal change in many Italian cities, was dying. Until now, It does not seem to be any positive solution for La Perla workers when the redundancy payment period will come to an end.
- Poltrona Frau
Since January 2011, the number of managers of Poltrona Frau went up from 29 to 37: however, sacrifices are demanded to workers, with the announced loss of 200 jobs between white and blue collars. This is how Aldo Benfatto (Secretary, CGIL Macerata) summarizes the current situation of Poltrona Frau plants. 66 workers are facing layoff in the plant in Tolentino, in the surroundings of Macerata. Their figure falls within a larger plan of industrial restructuring, amounting for the total loss of 200 jobs (both in the productive lines and in the offices), due to the outsourcing of finishing processes to Romania and to the merging of administrative branches.
Poltrona Frau is a large industrial group counting a total of 1,440 workers. According to the representatives of workers’ unions (the left-wing union CGIL and the catholic-oriented CISL), the experimental phase of outsourcing was already underway when information leaked at the end of the summer, leading to subsequent protests.
The plant is property of Charme, a fund run by Luca di Montezemolo (a well-known Italian businessmen, formerly head of Fiat and former President of the Association of Italian Industry Owners, Confindustria). In the past Montezemolo, presented himself as “the world ambassador for the ‘Made in Italy’”, an emphatic label that is now at odds with the proposed outsourcing. On its website, the brand keeps advertising itself as a “made in Italy”, something quite paradoxical given the current situation. The proposed outsourcing will threaten not only the future of 200 families, but also the survival of a whole economic model. In the area of Macerata, 24 small firms are currently responsible for 90% of the finishing process: their whole revenues are now at stake. An 8-hour strike was launched on September 29, 2011, obtaining a 100% participation (Source: CGIL). More protests took place on the following day (September 30, 2011), involving both white and blue collars, both temporary and permanent-contract workers. Negotiations are in progress.
- Mandarina Duck
When Mandarina Duck shut its corporate blog (“The Duck Side”) early in 2009, somebody started wondering what was going wrong. It was not before 2010, however, that the real extent of the problems faced by the group was known, and the 70 employees of its factory in Granarolo, near Bologna, started fearing the worse.
On February 11, 2010, Mariella Burani, one of the two major shareholders of the group, asked for bankruptcy protection (Source: Reuters) The other main shareholders, the English fund I3, was not interested in investing new capital, and, since that moment, the future of Mandarina Duck appeared to be extremely uncertain. Negotiations went frantic in the spring, but when the main bidder (the English fund Emerisque) withdrew from the bid, the stop of production appeared to be unavoidable. Later in the spring, the headquarters of the group announced 30 layoffs.
The workers of Mandarina Duck underwent months of mobilization and protest, calling for the intervention of political class and for active solutions of the bargain. Delegations of workers were received by the local politicians, while several days of strike and mobilization kept the issue well visible and made it difficult to be ignored or forgotten. Finally, a tentative agreements was reach to keep the production: enough capital has been collected in order to start working on the Fall 2011 collection. As of July 2011, 5 of the 30 layoff workers had found another job; 12 were actually layoff and 13 were be covered by solidarity contract, an important legislative tool that Italian firms have at their disposal to avoid extensive use of layoff. However, the future of Mandarina Duck is far from being safe, or certain.