For the last few months, cargo handling services in and around Milan have been hit by strike action.
Various multinationals located close to Italy’s second city and economic powerhouse have been affected.
Polo Logistico, a logistics company working with Swedish furniture giant Ikea, is situated in the city of Piacenza. As Ikea’s main storage centre in Italy it employs 500 workers who distribute products across the east Mediterranean region.
But tensions have been running high since October.
Workers, who are hired by exploitative cooperatives, have been protesting against irregular payments, unpaid overtime, racism, discrimination against unionised workers, heavy workloads and low salaries.
At the end of October, violent clashes between the police and demonstrating workers resulted in further protests outside the Egyptian embassy, since many of the affected workers were Egyptian.
In early November, scuffles broke out when around 150 people formed a human chain outside the Ikea warehouse. Twelve workers were fired for their part in the protests, although they have since been reinstated.
And after a blockade on 17 December, the Polo Logistico centre was forced to close temporarily, which had serious financial repercussions.
The latest dispute recently ended with the reinstatement of eight workers who “refused to work in different sites,” according to a company spokesperson. The unions called it a “punitive transfer”.
Workers have mainly been protesting against a consortium of cooperatives, Consorzio Gestione Servizi (CGS), which is accused of exploiting its workers.
Ikea Italy spokesperson Valerio Di Bussolo says they work with CGS because by “managing a number of contracts, CGS can offer, thanks to the resulting flexibility, a good level of organizational efficiency.”
However, this “flexibility” results in inequality and poor working conditions for the workers.
Code of conduct
Outwardly, this seems to go against Ikea’s values.
“Since 2000, IKEA has adopted a very strict and articulate code of conduct to ensure that the low price of its products doesn’t result into unacceptable social and environmental conditions,” says the company.
“All over the world we favour a dialogue based on a full respect of our workers’ rights.”
However, that hasn’t been the reality for Ikea’s cooperative workers in Italy. And fears that the Swedish multinational will take its business elsewhere have impacted on local support for the protests.
One person who is 100 per cent behind the workers, however, is Aldo Milani, general-secretary of COBAS, an independent union.
“These workers load 130kg per hour. Every year, these cooperatives change their name, thus escaping pension contributions. We have seen consortia with 2000 employees.”
Milani says that this style of cooperative is very Italian: “You can’t find it in any other country. With a very weak national transport infrastructure, mainly based on road transport, flexibility and low cost of labour is the only way to be competitive on the international market.”
On the foggy picket lines at six in the morning, you will find a new generation of trade unionists. People such as Luis Seclan and Mohamed Arafat are among the best-known names, but all of them are aware of how vital their work is to Italy’s economic system and they will not tolerate exploitation or racism.
But Ikea is just one example. All logistics platforms around Milan are in turmoil.
From supermarket chains such as Esselunga and Coop, to courier companies such as TNT and SDA, the workers are fighting back. Blockades – which prevent the entry of ‘scabs’ and the exit of goods – is the most commonly used tool, but pickets and protests are equally common.
In June 2012, a picket line at the Basiano shopping mall close to Piacenza saw clashes with the police which resulted in the broken legs of several strikers and one person ending up in a coma.
The strike began after a dismissal letter was sent to dozens of workers belonging to a particular cooperative, followed by the firing of thirteen other workers who had supported their striking colleagues. The workers who came to replace the dismissed ones were paid only €4.50 per hour instead of the €9 foreseen by the national contract.
In spite of the economic crisis in Italy, the logistics sector is growing.
Shopping centers, e-commerce and couriers have gained significant profits in recent years. The Milanese Logistics Region (RLM) is the Italian heart of this system.
The goods are shipped in from suppliers to large platforms and from there to the retailers. The products Italian customers find in stores or buy through the internet are physically moved by Peruvian, Pakistani and Egyptian arms.
These workers are becoming more and more intolerant of their increasingly precarious working conditions, especially as it presents such a sharp contrast with the wealth of their bosses. With the financial stability provided by permanent, open-ended contracts and decent wages, in previous years workers were able to start families, take out mortgages and send their children to university.
But in recent years as rents and taxes have increased, real wages have declined. This has resulted in a massive wave of strikes, supported by small independent trade unions, rather than major confederations, and by a solidarity network of left-wing activists and students.
Claudio Frugoni is a lawyer. He is involved in the legal protection of workers in the Basiano area which is known for its shopping centres.
“This is a labour struggle,” says Frugoni, “not one against racism.”
The cooperative has become a covert form of illegal hiring, even though formally these organisations are legal. The trick is to make someone an “associate worker” who is not entitled to overtime.
If they complain, the bosses tell them: “Stay home for a few days. There isn’t any work for you.” But this is actually an act of retaliation.
Cooperatives have a long history in Italy and were originally created for the mutual protection of workers but today they are often used as a tool of exploitation, particularly as many cooperatives have just one client and work with a single warehouse.
In these cases, the cooperative president is often a former foreman who has been doing the same job for a lifetime.
Nabil Hassan, a COBAS labour activist, says that the system resembles illegal hiring in agriculture: “90 per cent of the cooperatives have no means within the company and do not choose working hours.”
A significant riposte on the exploitation of migrant workers in northern Italy came last November from the British film director Ken Loach. “Awards are important, but respect for workers is even more important,” he said while rejecting a Lifetime Achievement Award from Turin Film Festival.
Through this symbolic act, Loach not only shed light on the appalling conditions of workers in logistics cooperatives, but against the entire system of outsourcing in Italy.