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'We've not been paid for five months': Whirlpool protest shines light on southern Italy's woes

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'We've not been paid for five months': Whirlpool protest shines light on southern Italy's woes
Photos: AFP
09:03 CET+01:00
Thousands of people marched through Naples on Thursday in protest over an industrial dispute that encapsulates the woes of the poverty-hit south, scarred by empty factories, high unemployment and the mafia.

Workers downed tools over the threatened closure by US white goods maker Whirlpool of a production site in the capital of the Campania region, and potential loss of over 1,000 jobs.

Whirlpool Wednesday announced a last-minute reprieve for the factory, which had been due to shut at the end of this month, but there was no guarantee a fresh round of negotiations with the government would save it.

"We're the victims of an endless deindustrialisation. Companies shut, the young leave," trade unionist Andrea Amendola told AFP, as fellow protesters held up an effigy of a Whirlpool worker nailed to the cross like Jesus.

The company insists the site which makes high-end washing machines is no longer profitable and wants to sell -- despite having signed a 2019-2021 plan in which it pledged to invest some 250 million euros ($278 million) in its Italy factories.

The closure of the Naples plant could see over 400 workers left high and dry, as well as hundreds of others along the supply chain.

Evictions, food banks

The dispute is the latest headache for the Five Star Movement (M5S), which holds the economic development ministry in the left-leaning coalition government, but has struggled to get a grip on a series of industrial crises across Italy.

Troubled sites from the ArcelorMittal steel works to car components manufacturer Blutec have come to symbolise the dire straits of the so-called Mezzogiorno, which has languished for decades despite repeated bids to revive it.

The European Commission warned Rome in October that it risks a cut in EU structural funds unless it maintains "an adequate level" of funding for the south.

"We've not been paid for five months, that hits families hard," said Giovanni Fusco, who was marching Thursday with some 3,000 school cleaners from the region whose jobs are under threat.

"Some are being evicted, others have had their electricity cut off, or have been forced to use food banks," he said.

Over half the 2.7 million people in Italy who resorted to food aid last year live in the south, agricultural association Coldiretti said, with the Campania region topping the table of poverty-induced hunger.

The gross domestic product (GDP) of the southern regions is just half that of central and northern Italy, while unemployment hovers near 20 percent, double the rest of the country, according to the Bank of Italy.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has pledged to launch an extraordinary investment plan for the Mezzogiorno and the government introduced a basic income scheme in April, but it has suffered serious teething problems.

'End of our tether'

"We're at the end of our tether," said Rosaria Sagliocco, 35, a Whirlpool worker taking part in a sit-in at the factory in a concrete-heavy suburb of Naples.

"We have children, mortgages to pay. We have to carry on somehow. But how?" she said, fighting back tears.

Others have warned of the fallout on younger generations -- particularly those who may feel their only choice is to try and make a living with Campania's powerful Camorra crime group.

Over half those under the age of 25 are jobless in Campania, Calabria and Sicily -- the heartlands of Italy's wealthy and ruthless organised crime groups, which attract those who feel abandoned by the state.

After a rise in brazen gun battles in shopping centres and streets, Italy's anti-mafia investigative authority warned in its latest report of an increase in youngsters vying to head up clans in and around Naples, which holds the record in Italy for the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

Some prefer to up and try their chances elsewhere. Nearly 130,000 Italians left the country in 2018 -- over half of whom come from southern Italy, the Catholic charity Fondazione Migrantes said this month.

 
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