Workers protest over health; prisoners riot over overcrowding during the coronavirus pandemic


Due to the measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), public life in Italy has come to a standstill. Following the rise in the number of cases, the country introduced a full lockdown, which means people cannot leave their houses unless to buy food, seek medical assistance or practise an 'essential' profession. However, during this period there have been protests amongst workers who raised concerns over health and safety conditions. Prisoners also raised concerns over the spread of the coronavirus within detention centres due to overcrowded facilities.

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Amazon staff strike over health concerns

On 17th March 2020 Amazon workers went on strike over the company's response to the coronavirus, after two staff members contracted the virus. Staff claim that the company isn’t abiding by the government’s safety regulations. Unions claim that factories aren’t practising proper hygiene and social distancing measures. However, Amazon claims that it has taken enough extra precautions to guarantee the safety of its workers. Workers in other regions, like Spain, have raised similar concerns.

In a statement, international workers’ union alliance UNI Global Union called on Amazon to protect its workers:

“Amazon workers are on the front lines of this crisis. Amazon is facing increased demand as families around the world prepare to stay home, and with that increased demand comes increased risk for workers. Workers are doing their part, but Amazon is failing to abide by safety rules set by governments in Spain and Italy, once again putting profits over people. Amazon needs to negotiate with unions to ensure worker safety and smoothly functioning supply chains,” - Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union.
Metalworkers strike over emergency measures during global pandemic

On 21st March 2020, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte toughened emergency measures to tackle the pandemic. Conte announced that approximately 80 industries would be exempt from these measures, which was later expanded to 97 sectors, including aerospace, defence and the production of agricultural machinery.

On 25th March 2020, metalworkers in Lombardy began striking as trade unions negotiated with the government to allow industries classified as non-essential to shut down. Some workers who are required to go to work during the state of emergency are concerned for the well-being of their families, despite some factories adopting safety measures. However, some smaller factories claim that safety measures like hand sanitiser and face masks are not being used.

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Prisoners protest due to overcrowded facilities

In early March 2020 riots broke out at prisons around the country over emergency measures put in place by the government and prison authorities due to the pandemic. These include preventing visits from family members and lawyers and limiting the possibility for detainees to get probation and special permits to leave facilities. Prisoners also raised concerns over hygiene and overcrowded conditions at facilities which could lead to increasing the spread of the virus. Families of prisoners protested outside prisons in Poggioreale, in the Naples region. According to Human Rights Watch the riots led to 13 detainee deaths of and close to 60 guards were injured. Media reports also suggest that several prisoners escaped. Authorities say the prisoners’ deaths were caused by drug overdoses after detainees raided the prisons’ pharmacies. The matter is under investigation.

Prisoner rights organisations have made several proposals to prevent infections in prisons, including probation for those who have health problems, home detention and early releases.

On 16th March 2020 the government announced additional safety measures for prisoners by permitting early supervised release of prisoners with less than 18 months to serve on their sentences. At the time of the announcement four prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19.

Thousands call for release of activist and student

On 17th February 2020 thousands gathered in Bologna to protest the detention of Patrick George Zaki, an Egyptian student studying for a master’s degree at the University of Bologna who is currently detained in Egypt. As previously reported by the Monitor, Zaki works for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), on gender and sexuality rights. The protest, organised by the Student Council of the University of Bologna, called for Zaki’s immediate release. 

In addition, on 19th March 2020 twelve universities launched a petition calling for Zaki’s immediate release.


NGOs call for a stay permit for migrant workers

campaign launched by several NGOs called “I was a Foreigner” is calling on the Italian government to grant migrant workers stay permits to ensure that there are enough farmers to secure food. This will also prevent “under-the-table labour, illegal gang mastering, and exploitation."

They have called on the government to "to legalise non-EU foreign citizens already in Italy, by issuing of a stay permit on the condition of a work contract in the agriculture sector or in other sectors, starting with care services for the elderly, sick and not self-sufficient."

Due to the pandemic many foreign workers are unable to travel to Italy and there is an estimated need of “250 000” farm workers to harvest fruit and vegetables.