Workers fight to save 10,000 jobs
After a month with no wages, the workers at Phonemedia occupied their call centres and organised protests. Demonstrations and occupations also took place at Agile where 1,200 jobs have already been destroyed. Omega, owner of both groups, has been put into administration by the Italian state.
With 5,200 workers in 12 cities, Phonemedia is Italy’s biggest call centre. The company also operates in Albania, Romania and Argentina.
Protest in defence of jobs
Phonemedia offers services as a contact centre and in telemarketing to private clients but also works for the public sector. In the Piemonte region, Phonemedia operates the reservation service, consultation and other services for Italy’s National Health service.
Phonemedia has been growing fast by buying other companies in the sector. This has been done by exploiting the workers. About half of the workers have precarious contracts and the management has created a terrible climate of pressure and bullying which has been described by workers on blogs. Communication from management to staff or unions has always been very poor.
The fast growth of the company was partly fuelled by public money. Phonemedia has received “incentives” from the regional and European Union funds.
From bad to worse
When the company started to have financial problems in December 2008, monthly wage payments were replaced by two-monthly rates – paid very irregularly. Pension payments were deducted from wages, but never paid into the pension funds.
In July 2009 the owner, Fabrizio Cazzago, sold Phonemedia to OMEGA , a company listed on the stock markets. Omega and one of its owners, Sebastiano Liori, have a bad image for buying and salvaging companies in difficulties such as Omnia and Agile.
Omega is said to be under the control of Restform Limited. However, according to the Italian TV programme, Annozero, the company headquarters in London is not staffed, the identity of its legal representative is unclear and there is the suspicion that Omega acts as a cover for mafia activities.
Omega has about 10,000 employees in Italy, 1,200 of which have already been sacked. Omega is also owner of Agile (formerly Eutelia) which has about 2,000 employees in Italy. The vast majority of workers have not received any pay for the past month and are not receiving any social security payments. In December 2009, the Italian state decided to send in the administrators.
Also, in the case of Phonemedia, it became clear that continuing operations was not planned – the payment of wages became even more irregular and clients were literally pushed into terminating contracts. In some cases clients were not sent the necessary documents (such as proof of social security payments) until they were forced to terminate their contracts.
Even though Phonemedia was in an obvious state of liquidity crisis, this was never formally declared which. If this had happened, it would at least have opened up a dialogue with unions and state representatives. None of the workers at Phonemedia were made redundant, making it impossible to claim unemployment benefits.
The reaction of the workforce
The reaction of the workforce has been to fight back. Since November the majority of workers have been on unlimited strike. Some call centres, such as here in Casalecchio di Reno, have been occupied. In Catanzaro the local council has been repeatedly occupied by about 100 Phonemedia workers. In Pistoia the 560 workers have occupied their call centre and have been organising protests at the town hall, the province and the region.
This dispute in the call centre is important because it is a sector with particularly low pay, where conditions and contracts are often terrible with very little organisation and presence of trade unions. A growing number of people are working in this sector, mainly women and youth.
As the effects of the world economic crisis are felt widely in Italy this struggle could set an example in a sector that does not have the same traditions of fighting back as some industrial sectors
However, it is necessary to point out some of the weaknesses of the struggle. The response of the national union leadership has been insufficient. They should have acted to unify all the workers of the many companies and organise joint struggle. The unions should have linked up the people in the various workplaces to exchange experiences, encourage each other and to discuss and develop an alternative work plan. Instead, the union leadership has not taken the lead but reacted to the actions of the owners and the state and simply called for the administrators to be sent in. In the workplaces union representatives did not call for a struggle to save all jobs, but announced the company being taken into administration as their ultimate goal.
As a result, some workers have handed in their notice and are trying to get back the wages they are owned by legal means. There are also illusions in the intervention of other institutions or of politicians such as Antonio Di Pietro from Italia dei Valori (a populist, capitalist party). The radical left party, Rifondazione Comunista, has reacted very late and started a strange solidarity campaign – selling oranges to raise funds for the workers for Phonemedia and Agile..
Putting forward a programme 0f struggle
The CWI in Italy has been intervening in the struggle and putting forward the following proposals for taking the struggle forward:
- Organise to involve all workers and to extend the struggle. We have argued for the organising of a weekly general assembly in order to discuss the goals and the strategy of the struggle. We proposed the election of a strike committee by the general assembly, accountable and subject to recall.
- We have stressed the importance of going out and creating public pressure and linking up with the other Phonemedia workplaces as well as the colleagues from Agile. We suggested the of organisation a solidarity campaign, using as an example the successful struggle at INNSE in Milano where neighbours, activists, friends and family formed a solidarity committee that played a vital role during the occupation there.
- We have argued for the objective of defending all jobs, pressing for a transparent process of administration where elected workers’ representatives take part in decision-making. If the opening of the books shows that Phonemedia and Agile cannot continue to operate, then they should be nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management.
Now that Omega is in administration some workers believe that the struggle is finished but we would still encourage the sending of messages of solidarity to : firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and copies to firstname.lastname@example.org