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The roads not taken: Migrants, labor and antiracism in Italy in the age of the Bossi-Fini Law

Giorgio Grappi | Journal: Challenging Italian Racism [6] | Issues | Oct 2010

1. Racism in times of economic turmoil

Racism seems to grow in times of crisis. Racist violence and political movements are increasing and the debate on immigration seems bogged down in the whole of Europe, from Hungary to Great Britain. The Arizona Law adopted shortly before the first of May, an historic day for immigrant workers since the 2006 Great American Boycott,[1] seems to confirm that this trend is not an European prerogative. Moreover, recent polls confirmed the support for tough immigration laws by American public opinion,[2] very similarly the finding by ILO in 2009 in a study on the impact of the economic crisis on migration. The crisis meant for immigrants not only an impoverishment in conditions of employment, but also increasing ‘discrimination, violence and xenophobia’ as a reaction to economic and social anxiety.[3]

The Italian situation fits in this picture, and in some instances has predated a now generalized trend. If we look back we can see how the present government, whose Minister of the Interior is a leading member of the racist party Lega Nord, is the final point of a long trajectory which includes a shifting demography, deteriorating labor relations, and restrictive immigration regulation. My aim is to offer a reading of racism in Italy from the point of view of labor relations and the impact of the consequences of racism. It is indeed my belief that racism has many roots and expressions, but it has also structural bases in the role it plays in the management of the labor force and the labor struggles by Capital. With this perspective, I will analyze how Italian laws differentiate the labor force producing its racialization inside the framework of a relational theory of racism.

2. Italian path to Racism

That said, I cannot avoid mentioning the many cases of explicit racism we have witnessed in Italy in the last 15-20 years.[4] Assaults on immigrants’ communities and individual migrants go from harassment to physical assault and shooting, as in the case of the uprising in Rosarno, Calabria, in the beginning of 2010, when for the first time immigrants actively reacted in a mass uprising. Besides the large events, indeed, we have reportedly a growing number of attacks against migrant workers who have not been paid and demanded their wages, or complained about poor job conditions. Physical violence often occurs, and that suggest how migrants are become made equivalent to objects or machines in the hands of the employer. We are well beyond the alarm threshold, and the problem should be addressed by Italian public opinion. But at the same time it would be naïve to think about it in terms of civility or culture, or only in terms of a lack of knowledge about the reality of migration.

While the current situation in Italy seems to suggest a return to direct form of cultural racism, most of the processes that create and reproduce social and economic inequalities have been established before this reemergence. Moreover, most of those policies have been settled during a period of left or center-left governments. For these reasons, while we try to challenge the explicit racism embodied by the Lega Nord, we should not forget the institutional mechanisms that constitute the racist structure of Italian society, starting from the recognition of the essence of racism as a specific ideology, disentangled from the biological dimension of races and seize the opportunity to present another discourse that challenges the whole racist hegemony towards migration.

3. Institutional racism and the labor market

Harald Bauder acknowledges that race and racism are powerful mechanism of exclusion and subordination, but linking migration to labor market regulation adopts a wider perspective. Race is thus comprised inside a larger picture, where

‘social processes of distinction affect international migrants in the labor market through legal categories such as citizenship, through institutional mechanism, including the non-recognition of foreign credentials, through the interpretation of corporeal signs such as dress and speech, and through habitual practices, including job interviewing techniques’.[5]

Under this perspective, Bauder adds that ‘focusing exclusively on race would present a narrow view of the relationship between international migration and labor markets’ and of the role that race itself plays.

Thus, equality and differentiation must be seen as social and political products. Although I don’t dismiss the crucial dimension of the color-line, we should consider it together with the broader context of the transnational labor market and class relations, and, from this perspective, I reflect with recent scholarship on the autonomy of migration.[6] Policies towards migration movements are part of the attempt to manage the mobility of the work force and play a key role in «reconstructing the oppression of living labor under capital as a whole». Racism can be seen in this context as ‘a form of social conflict’ that arises in ‘conflicts between the state and struggle of migration’. Manuela Bodjadzjev summarizes this gaze from the angle of autonomy by saying that we have to move forward beyond the idea that racism is a pure passive product of the state, and rather deem it the product of a process that involves state authority and the struggles of migrants. This is what she calls ‘a relational theory of racism’.[7]

My argument is that anti-racism should also focus on the multiple levels where racism is expressed, but cannot avoid to engage in the dynamics and struggles involving labor and institutional racism. Moreover, although important, it would be an error to focus primarily on the more explicit racist rhetoric and local policies which are, in some instances, the product or the results of those dynamics and struggles. That doesn’t means to minimize the role of struggles, but rather to recognize that racism reorganizes itself following some needs that are broadly speaking social, political and economic at the same time, that is: keeping the labor and the work force manageable for the needs of production. Institutional racism operates in a way that can use skin color and physical or cultural characteristics, but this is not his primary goal. On the contrary, it operates exactly by overcoming these physical and cultural characteristics, claiming not to be racist. Its logic normatively produces differential positions inside the scale of rights and entitlements.[8] It refers to an order where migrants and citizens are constantly absorbed into different categories, and thus leaving space to arbitrary administrative procedures. By the reproduction of a differentiated labor force, institutional racism produces interchangeable and over-exploitable workers and translate it into racism, so that ‘powerlessness’ become ‘not so much the defining as necessary condition for racism’.[9] Turning the attention to the present Italian conjuncture, I will now focus on the normative link that relates labor and migration in Italy, the “contratto di soggiorno per lavoro” (contract to stay) embedded in the Bossi-Fini Law.

4. “Contratto di soggiorno”: the contractualization of institutional racism

The Bossi-Fini Law follows years of renewal of the Italian laws on immigration. The most decisive shift was introduced after the creation of the Shengen border regime in 1995, when Italian borders become part of the wider European borders (1997) and a restrictive view on immigration lead to a debate on the regulation of migrants entrance and stay in the country. Shortly after mid ‘90s, the center-left government issued a comprehensive reform of the immigration law, introducing with the Turco-Napolitano Law (1998) different residence permits and the long stay permit (carta di soggiorno), formally allowing a sort of denizenship to immigrants that had a continuity in their occupation and did not commit crimes in Italian soil. The Turco-Napolitano Law contained two other main novelties: the flux regime and the administrative detention centers (Centri di Permanenza Temporanea – CPT).

All these novelties were in some way part of a larger compliance of the emerging European policy on immigration, and they would eventually become fundamental for every subsequent reform. In fact, the Bossi-Fini Law of 2002, a revision of the Turco-Napolitano, restricted almost all its parts with important novelties, AND the link between job and permit became stricter. The provisions included in the Bossi-Fini Law can be summarized as follows:

‘first, the concept of a contract to stay was introduced, that is an agreement between the migrant worker and the employer, necessary to obtain or to renew the residence permit. The maximum duration of the contract-to stay was two years, in the case of an open-ended work contract, one year, in case of a temporary contract and nine months, in case of a seasonal job. Since the residence permit was dependent on the contract to stay, its expiration dates were automatically linked. Consequently the length of the residence permit was always dependent on the nature of the work contract, in contrast to the previous legislation, whereby a renewal of the work contract meant that the residence permit would automatically be renewed. Second, the new law lowered to six months the length of the residence permit, in cases where the individual was unemployed. Third, it extended, to six years (from the previous five) the length of stay before a Carta di Soggiorno could be requested. Fourth, the expulsion measures for undocumented migrants and overstayers were further strengthened’.[10]

As some observed, the “contract to stay” was part of a broader regulation of the labor market that included the introduction of several precarious labor contract (the so-called Legge 30, and the previous “pacchetto Treu”, the latter, adopted by the center-left government in 1997, introduced new forms of temporary work, while the first, adopted by the center-right government in 2003, increased flexibility inside the labor market). The “contract to stay” itself, although an Italian innovation, was intended to implement a proposed European directive (386 def. 11 July 2001) whose aim was to address the member states towards a balance between economic necessity and the recognition of rights.[11] In general, besides this core the Bossi-Fini Law and his implementation introduced many prohibitive administrative conditions that eventually have rendered difficult for every migrant any round of renewal of the permit. My thesis is that institutional racism, thus, becomes a necessary supplement to this precarious labor market.

5. Racializing the labor market

The presumption of the Bossi-Fini Law is that the only actor who can claim something in the migration process is Capital, in this sense, the labor market is substituted and anticipated by an administrative and political ‘authorization’.[12] On the one hand, the public administration plays a direct role inside the labor market, setting the limits of permits and the conditions for their renewal. On the other hand, the employers have a direct role in the definition of the right to stay of migrants. Recent amendments to the Bossi-Fini Law, the so called “Security Packet” – tellingly a law on security that pertains to immigration among other things and is part of a government package on the economic crisis – have further on increased the number of conditions and rules that migrants have to accomplish to get their documents in order. Furthermore, it has introduced the crime of “illegal entrance or stay” inside the territory of the state and extended the time of detention inside the now called Center for identification and expulsion (CIE). It introduced also the concept of “permesso a punti” (point permit), where migrants can lose their permit after a relatively small number of administrative notifications. Overall, the background of the Bossi-Fini and the “Security Packet”, is not regularity, but illegality: this set the normal condition of migrants, from whom they must accomplish their duties to be recognized some right. But the state of illegality is always possible and it became related to a specific function inside the labor market.

In Bauder’s words,

‘migrants and nonimmigrants integrate when they perform distinct roles in society and in the labor market. In the context of immigration, labor market integration does not necessarily imply that immigrants are paid equally or have equal access to occupational opportunity as nonimmigrants. Rather, integration means that immigrants have a distinct economic function that is vital for local, national, and international economies to operate. [..] Even unemployed immigrant workers could be considered integrated into the labor force because they affect labor supply and thus wage structure and other labor conditions [..]’.[13]

Following de Genova, in this context it is exactly ‘their distinct legal status as legally vulnerable labor-power that renders them indispensable to capital. Whether by means of “illegalization” or “legalization” state power works to render migrant labor into a manageable object for capital’.[14]  And let us consider Allen’s theory, elaborated with reference to the colonial origins of the United States and the role of slavery in America, that ‘is not “race”, in general, that must be understood, but the “white race”, in particular; so the “white race” must be understood, not simply as a social construct (rather than a genetic phenomenon), but as a ruling-class social control formation’.[15]

Beyond continuities, the discontinuities in respect of Allen’s theory about the construction of the white race as a ruling device to divide the working class, must be updated following the scale of differential inclusion, and the many positions it includes, vis-à-vis the discourse of regularity and irregularity. We will be then allowed to see how irregularity and deportability constantly haunt migrants’ existence, racializing their presence as an always precarious condition. The Bossi-Fini Law is thus a good example of how racism operates through a complex process of racialization of the entire working class, introducing differentiations in status and rights as a tool of hierarchization. For these reasons, although the Bossi-Fini and the “contract to stay” are Italian laws, they should be seen inside the broader story of racialization of the working class.[16]

6. Differences at work

We can call it “differential inclusion”, or, as some sociologists that follow Lockwood’s theory do, “civic stratification”.[17] The fact is that illegality is the part of migrants’ life for a certain amount of time: it can be before, after or between the time of legality (or regularity). Capital plays along the differential inclusion line, exploiting the legal production of race and illegality. This becomes clear when we look to the illegal migrants: they are exploitable because of their illegality. But what if we turn to the “legal” ones? As we have seen, vulnerability and laws create a permanently ambiguous condition for migrants, deepened by the current economic crisis, and in the public discourse the translation of this ambiguity rests in the revocability of the respect, rights and dignity towards migrants. Consequently they are de-humanized also in the eyes of their fellow workers, revitalizing a sort of nationalism of rights.[18] This happens in a social landscape where workers have been marginalized in the political discourse, and class struggle has become unspeakable in the Italian context similarly to the US context. Thus, if it easy to notice a workers racism that divides citizens from migrants preventing a stronger mobilization, this happens in a context where there is also a sort of anti-workers aptitude in the social discourse: the politics of work is thus denied and hidden.

We can see it through the words of a worker interviewed on the relation between labor and racism in Genoa, at the dawn of the Bossi-Fini Law:

‘There are a lot of people that talk about labor without literally knowing a shit about labor. [Some] say that the relationship between Italian workers and foreign workers is marked by racism, and this is a half-truth [...] The real problem is that, at least from 15 years, there’s a run to a reduction of the production costs and a boost on productivity [...] Every amount of time, six months, it came someone ready-made to do the same work for a lower wage. This is the problem. The last comers, usually, accept a lower wage. And this doesn’t pertain only to foreigners’.[19]

These words appear to confirm the dynamic observed by Manuel Castells, back in 1975, on migrant labor and the relatively lower wage levels: ‘immigrant workers do not exist because there are ‘arduous and badly paid’ jobs to be done, but, rather, arduous and badly paid jobs exist because immigrant workers are present or can be sent for to do them’. In other words, arduous and badly paid jobs require the formation of a weaker group of workers, in relation to the “balance of power” between laborers and employers in a given context.[20]

This picture has to be updated to the Italian context. The interviewee worker refers to migrants’ work relating it to the growing vulnerability that includes all: “the last comers” are often Italian precarious workers, contractors and subcontractors. The “contract to stay” and the more recent crime of illegal migration operate inside this context, fostering racism. Paraphrasing David Roediger, we could say that today the wage of whiteness is accompanied with the wage of citizenship, or the wage of regularity as an upper level in the scale of inclusion.[21] And the price is paid by migrants first, and then by all. Of course, they pay different prices.

Migrant workers are supposed to be equal to other workers: they can go on strike together with their colleagues, and most of the time they do in spite of their precarious and exploited conditions. But still, they have to do that wiping off their own inner identity: they cannot speak about the deportation regime and their migrant condition. They have to act as workers (or as migrants on the cultural sphere), but not as migrant workers. While challenging their labor condition “as workers” they are somehow recognized by their employers, other workers, and the unions. But what if they decide to bring inside labor relations their specific condition as migrant workers and the institutional racism that determines it?

7. Vulnerability, deportability and the challenge for antiracist struggles

As some Italian labor scholars observed, the concept of segmentation of the labor force and the traditional analysis on “precariousness” only partially fit in the new conditions of labor. If ‘the increasing precariousness and fragmentation of work are the two main aspects of the present global and local processes’, transnational migrations and migration policies are both part of this process as well.[22]  However, it will be wrong to equate migrant workers with all other precarious conditions. Their specificity is in fact related to a constitutive difference given by their deportability, by the fact that their racialized position inside labor market is always already a lower position because of the state authorization to stay they need.

Deportability can thus be considered the background for migrants inclusion in the labor market. Following De Genova, ‘it is deportability, and not deportation as such, that ensures that some are deported in order that most may remain (undeported) – as workers, whose pronounced and protracted legal vulnerability may thus be sustained indefinitely’.[23]  Detention centers become thus a sort of social institution that is part of the regulation of the labor market, where some workers are kept for some time in a sort of legal limbo and social stand-by. And the recent “Security Packet” provisions, prolonging up to 18 months the time of administrative detention, push further this indefinitiveness and the role of the centers as regulating tools of the whole social reproduction.[24]

Challenging racism in today Italy should not forget those concrete relations between racism and the labor market. Too often we see good announcements accompanied by a sort of loneliness of those migrants and Italian workers that try to struggle inside this tension camp. Migration has become in recent years a cornerstone of every respectable political discourse, but the general moving back of Italian society has involved also the antiracist movement, that is divided and on the whole weak. If the roots of racism, Italian racism included, can be located in the context of labor relations, that means a crucial challenge for antiracism today will not be the claim for equality, integration or true citizenship, but the assumption of migrants’ partiality as a political tool capable of involving the labor movement. We have seen signals in this direction: on 1st March  2010, a “24 ours without us” was called in France and other European countries. Although with a completely different background, the echo of 2006, when millions of migrant workers went on strike during the Great American Boycott (“a day without an immigrant”), was there. In Italy the word “strike” circulated after being adopted artlessly by the founders of a Facebook group towards the 1st March. In many Italian towns thousands of people demonstrated that day, often bringing to the fore for the first time migrants and Italians together in a show of strength more than solidarity. The unpredicted fact is that many migrants actually went on strike, autonomously or with the help of their local union and other antiracist groups, although it spread in a non-homogeneous manner.

In some situations, Italian workers joined migrants and went on strike, tellingly challenging the whole hegemony on migration: as one Italian member of a metalworker union said in Bologna, “we are here because we know that the attack upon migrants is against us too, their struggle against racism and the Bossi-Fini Law is our struggle”. Thus, migrants’ agency inside labor relations assumed the form of a true ‘mobilization’ of migrants subjectivities that challenges directly institutional racism and his impact in the labor market, and potentially involves a possibility of re-mobilization of labor.[25]  Broadening this approach could led to a different form of antiracism, that engages in labor relations from a partiality that will not constitute itself as an universal subject, but rather point to a new composition of the struggles that goes beyond solidarity. This is particularly important in the midst of the economic crisis, when labor is jeopardized and institutional racism fuels division and distrust among workers. Of course, this is not given; contemporary labor composition is heterogeneous posing countless challenges. Yet political activity is needed, and we should pay attention to the signals in this direction and elaborate on it, and don’t leave the “ imperceptible character of politics” be our fault.[26]

The fact it’s not just that immigrants are overwhelmingly workers or working families, whether legal or not, but that their condition speaks about contemporary condition of labor. This must have consequences on antiracist practice. In time of crisis, with racism growing among workers,[27] both antiracist and labor movements should draw a conclusion, and perhaps try roads not taken.


1. M. Cooper, “A protest of, for and by workers”, LA Weekly, 11 May (2006) [↑]

2. R. C. Archibold and M. Thee-Brenan, “Poll Shows Most in U.S. Want Overhaul of Immigration Laws,” The New York Times, May 3 (2010) [↑]

3. See I. Awad, “The global economic crisis and migrant workers: Impact and response,” Geneva, ILO (2009):120-121 [↑]

4. See ECRI, Report on Italy (1998): http://hudoc.ecri.coe.int/XMLEcri/ENGLISH/Cycle_01/01_CbC_eng/01-cbc-italy-eng.pdf; ECRI, Second report on Italy (2002): http://hudoc.ecri.coe.int/XMLEcri/ENGLISH/Cycle_02/02_CbC_eng/02-cbc-italy-eng.pdf; ECRI, Third report on Italy (2006): http://hudoc.ecri.coe.int/XMLEcri/ENGLISH/Cycle_03/03_CbC_eng/ITA-CbC-III-2006-19-ENG.pdf and A. Rivera, Regole e roghi. Metamorfosi del razzismo (Dedalo, 2009) [↑]

5. H. Bauder, Labor Movement. How Migration Regulates Labor Markets (Oxford: University Press, 2006), 11 [↑]

6. See S. Mezzadra, Diritto di fuga. Migrazioni, cittadinanza, globalizzazione, (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2006), 184-195 [↑]

7. M. Bojadzijev, Does Contemporary Capitalism Need Racism?, http://translate.eipcp.net/strands/02/bojadzijev-strands01en/print (2006) [↑]

8. See E. Rigo, “Razza clandestina. Il ruolo delle norme giuridiche nella costruzione di soggetti-razza,” in Immigrazione. Tra diritti e politica globale, ed. C. Menghi (Torino: Giappichelli, 2002) [↑]

9. M. Burawoy, “The functions and reproduction of migrant labor,” American Journal of Sociology 81 (1976): 1083 [↑]

10. As usefully summarized in G. Mottura and M. Rinaldini, “Migrants’ paths in the Italian labour market and the migrant regulatory frameworks: precariousness as a constant factor,” in Refugees, recent migrants and employement: challenging barriers and exploring pathways, ed. S. McKay (New York: Routledge, 2009) [↑]

11. As explained in M. Rinaldini, “Lo status di immigrato alla luce del concetto di stratificazione civica: alcune riflessioni sulla situazione italiana,” La Rivista delle Politiche Sociali, forthcoming (2010) [↑]

12. See F. Raimondi and M. Ricciardi, ed. Lavoro Migrante. Esperienze e prospettiva (Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2004), 12-13 [↑]

13. Bauder, p. 9 [↑]

14. N. De Genova, “Conflicts of mobility, and the mobility of conflict: Rightlessness, presence, subjectivity, freedom,” Subjectivity 29 (2009): 445-466, 461 [↑]

15. T. Allen, Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race, http://clogic.eserver.org/1-2/allen.html (1998) [↑]

16. See for this global perspective F. Gambino and D. Sacchetto, “Die Formen Des Mahlstroms. Von den Plantagen zu den FlieBbändern,” in Űber Marx Hinaus, ed. M. van der Linden and K. H. Roth (Berlin and Amburg: Assoziation A., 2009), 115-155 [↑]

17. As in the abovementioned Rinaldini (2010) [↑]

18. The revival of this nationalism of rights renders often useless the appeal to human rights, as shown in K. H. Maher, W”ho has a right to rights?,” in Globalization and Human Rights, ed. A. Brysk (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 19-43 [↑]

19. From an interview reportedy by Quadrelli in Raimondi and Ricciardi, 38-42 [↑]

20.  M. Castells, “Immigrant Workers and Class Struggles in Advanced Capitalism: the Wester European Experience,” Politics & Society 5.33 (1975): 33-66, 54. Quoted in Bauder, 3-4 [↑]

21. See D. Roediger, The Wage of Whiteness. Race and the making of the American working class (New York: Verso, 1999) and D. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (Basic Books, 2006) [↑]

22. As in Mottura and Rinaldini [↑]

23. De Genova (2009), 456 [↑]

24. See S. Mezzadra, “Les camps d’étrangers ou le frontières intérieures de l’Europe. À propos de Marc Bernardot, Camps d’ètrangers,” La revue Internationale des Livres & des Idèes 9, janvier-février (2009) [↑]

25. See N. De Genova, “The Queer Politics of Migration: Reflections on ‘Illegality’ and ‘Incorrigibility’”, Studies in Social Justice, special thematic issue on Migrant Rights Activism, forthcoming (2010) [↑]

26. On the imperceptibility of politics see D. Papadopoulos, N. Stephenson and V. Tsianos, Escape Routes. Control and Subversion in the Twenty-first Century (London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008), 71-82 [↑]

27. See for example the analysis by Italian sociologist Paolo Feltrin on the outcome of the recent local elections in Veneto, reported in La Tribuna di Treviso, april 20, 2010. Although high abstention prevent from any simplistic conclusion [↑]

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