We work, we strike
by : Vittorio Longhi
Wednesday March 3, 2010 - 14:19
by Vittorio Longhi
The 1 March protests saw immigrant workers in Europe down tools to raise awareness of the discrimination they face
A peaceful and colourful spectre seems to be haunting Europe. It’s a grassroots movement of migrants and activists claiming for participation and protesting against discriminatory immigration laws in France and in Italy. Monday 1 March, the first "day without immigrants, 24 hours without us" cannot but be considered a milestone in foreign workers’ fight for social and political rights. The idea comes from the economic boycott in the United States in 2006, when hundred of thousands of Latino workers took to the streets asking for better conditions and against the criminalisation of "irregulars". They abstained from consumer spending and working in companies and family care, but also attending colleges, hospitals, buying and selling, while boasting slogans such as: "Today we march, tomorrow we vote."
In Europe, the movement was born in the ideal cradle of France. More than 200 years after the French revolution and the declaration of the rights of men and the citizen, a new social actor is demanding visibility: "We, immigrants, immigrants’ descendants, citizens, are aware of the contribution of immigration to our country, we all generate economic growth," reads the movement’s manifesto. The date of the strike was chosen after the French "code of foreigners’ entry and stay and right to asylum", which came into effect on 1 March 2005. This law, according to protesters, symbolises a mere utilitarian idea of immigration.
Organisers are ordinary workers such as African carpenters and Asian nurses, but also unionists, journalists and intellectuals, both natives and migrants who used Facebook to create the network in France and then spread it to Italy and, with less intensity, to Spain and Greece. Yellow is the colour of the movement, signifying the political neutrality and independence of the initiative, which was coordinated by local committees already active in fights against a rampant xenophobic propaganda.
It’s hard to assess the day’s concrete economic impact as many immigrants had to pass the strike for fear of losing their jobs or because they could not afford to lose even a single day’s wage. But the attention raised on the issue already meets organisers’ expectations. There were mass marches, concerts and meetings from Paris to Rome, despite the media blackout and lack of concrete help by the main leftist parties and trade unions, which just gave their moral support.
And yet European progressive forces and trade unions should listen carefully to this demand of representation. In Italy, where prime minister Silvio Berlusconi makes irresponsible statements such as "the left wants a multiethnic society, we don’t", there are 4.5m regular migrants who contribute 9% of the country’s gross national product. But recent immigration laws make it harder and harder to live and work legally in the country. The Italian government’s policy has been repeatedly criticised by UN agencies, NGOs and also the Vatican. From push-backs to Libya that sends potential refugees to violence and torture, to discrimination of migrants at work and criminalisation of illegal immigrants, among which there are many who have just lost their jobs after decades of work, due to the current economic crisis.
Such discriminatory and racist systems are raising the potential for social conflict in Europe. While the 1 March initiative is aimed at stimulating solidarity among the working class in Italy, in France and everywhere else, migrants are seen as a threat to natives’ jobs and wages, where there’s a claim for protection instead of rights.
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