Eight weeks into Italy’s countrywide lockdown, Covid-19 has quickly become more than a question of health. It is a question of livelihood. On March 22, 2020, Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, signed Decreto Cura Italia (Decree Care for Italy). The decree outlined who would receive unemployment funds.
In Conte’s decree there was a forgotten group of workers: colf e badanti—domestic workers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly. This category consists of 860,000 legal workers and an estimated 1.2 million additional workers working in nero—black—meaning their work is legally undeclared. A petition circulated in the Italian magazine inGenere noted the irony: despite the decree’s name, the government was withholding care for care workers.
Domestic and care workers are part of what Tithi Bhattacharya considers the social reproduction sector, or the sector of “life-making activities.” Work in this sector is mainly carried out by immigrants, and specifically by women of color. In Italy, a large number of care workers are migrant women from the Philippines.
In the context of what Bhattacharya refers to as a capitalist “thing-making system,” which undervalues activities of care and “life-making,” the decree’s exclusions are both unsurprising and unexceptional.
Having spent the past two years collaborating with migrant associations in Italy, I was familiar with the long-existing strategies of solidarity that Filipino women employ in response to their marginalization, both within the Italian welfare state and the global migrant labor chain. I was therefore not surprised to hear from them that, in the face of the Italian government’s lack of support in the Covid-19 pandemic, Filipina in northern Italian cities were taking care of one another.
Early on a Saturday morning, I spoke on a video call to Rosalie Bajade, a Filipino domestic worker and President of ACFIL (the Filipino Cultural Association of Piedmont, representing the over 6,000 Filipinos living in Turin). I was in my living room in Reggio Emilia and she was in hers in Turin. On the screen, a feeble sun seeped through both of our open windows.
In December 2019, we met at a workshop in Turin discussing a new financial literacy program that was to be started in the coming year. I remember our cold hands touching, seeing our breath as we stood in an unheated foyer. Back then, we had very different plans for the spring.
“In this ‘no work, no pay’ situation, we have written a petition for the Italian government’s Cura Italia decree to include colf e badanti. We have asked to be seen,” said Rosalie.
Without a clear government response as to how communities in need would receive support, Rosalie and seven other members of ACFIL started fundraising and delivering food packs door-to-door to Filipino families across Turin. Rosalie detailed that their quick mobilization was due to two factors: ACFIL’s partnership with Banco Alimentare ONLUS, a charity food bank in Turin since 2003, and the financial support from other associations ACFIL has partnered with.
“It was beautiful,” Rosalie said describing the support received, “because it was not only Filipinos who still had a salary supporting us, but also Italians.”
Since the end of February, Rosalie has seen her income as a domestic worker reduced by two-thirds. I asked Rosalie why she had decided to help other Filipino families and not just her own. She replied: “Despite the fact that I am also in economic difficulty, I cannot abandon my community . . . other than the food support, we are also giving psychological and moral support . . . I mean I also need it! Each one of us needs help.”
Rosalie explained that as a member of the Overseas Filipino Workerswatch (OFWw) Covid-19 task force, which works at a national level accounting for nearly every municipality with a Filipino population, her Pinoy solidarity in Italy is not localized to an individual city. While municipal borders are now policed and closed, their solidarity exists as a connected archipelago. This is reflected in the captions of her food drive pictures on Facebook, which include the slogans: “Kababayan—Filipino country people we HEAL as one” and “Bayanihan—the spirit of communal work is alive!”
Furthermore, Rosalie’s word choice plays on the highly emotive, and political rhetoric used by Filipino anti-colonialists under the Spanish rule, which was then repurposed by the Philippines’s state-sponsored labor export programs initiated by President Marcos and extended by President Aquino in the 1970s (Encinas-Franco 2015).
A week after my conversation with Rosalie, the Italian government published a new decree guaranteeing that colf e badanti, including those working in nero, would have access to an emergency fund of 500–600 euros. The reasons for the new decree were not specified. Whether or not it was in response to the petition, the new decree has provided a small sense of relief and recognition.
In 2018, Dittz Centeno De Jesus, the current secretary-general of the OFWw, started the Sartoria di Fashionista Filipina (The Filipina Fashionista Dressmakers) with fourteen other women to sew dresses for themselves. When Dittz, who works as a babysitter in Bologna, was asked by her employer not to go to work for fear that she could spread the virus, Dittz did not know what to do with her time. In March, the group rebranded themselves as the Sanitary Brigade. In their own homes, via video call, they started sewing masks instead of dresses.
For Dittz, as for Rosalie, the value in acts of solidarity is also to be found in beneficial psychological outcomes: “For these ladies, sewing is a way of therapy during this time of quarantine. Some are depressed and they do not know if they are still useful in the community.”
Looking at Dittz’s colorful masks, I found sewing a generative way to consider solidarity. Her tiny stitches are stitches of power, reflected in the many associations spread across the Italian territory that bring individual Filipino women together.
Social solidarity has always been a defining component of Filipino community in Italy. Though their response to the Covid-19 crisis is, in a certain sense, unexceptional, these strategies of endurance are in no way any less relevant. Now more than ever before, they provide the infrastructure for direct participation and for the collective provisioning of resources.
For Ai-jen Poo, co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the United States, care work is “the work that makes everything else possible, because it makes it possible for all of us to go out and do what we do every day.” Capitalist society wrongly conceptualizes labor value as production. In reality, the most essential labor is looking after, taking care. Despite the current reduced employment in care sector jobs, the ethic of care work prevails. It is found in the community-centered initiatives of the Filipino women in Italy.
In the first weeks of May, Italy’s “Phase 2” of lockdown begins. As we gingerly emerge into this late spring, the country’s economic engines may start humming again. In Italian, the word cura means both cure and care. What might it mean to consider care as a cure? Trudging (socially distant) through a financial crisis, could we rebuild Italian livelihood as a caring economy?
Encinas-Franco, Jean. 2015. “Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) as Heroes: Discursive Origins of the ‘Bagong Bayani’ in the Era of Labor Export.” Humanities Diliman 12, no. 2: 56–78.