The revolution in logistics
Interview with MOHAMED ARAFAT – by ANNA CURCIO and GIGI ROGGERO
Mohamed Arafat has worked at TNT for six years in the logistical sector of the Piacenza region in northern Italy. He went to Italy from Egypt after graduating in social work and worked in an orange factory in Sicily before moving to Piacenza. He did not migrate to escape poverty: ‘my father is an engineer and my mother a teacher. When I graduated I wanted to have my own life and meet other people and learn other languages: I thought paradise was here but after a month of being in Italy I already wanted to go back to Egypt. In the south I came across brutal exploitation and hunger, the master does what he wants. In the north it’s no different, like at TNT: you go to work for eight hours and they let you go after two, you end up with 200-300 euros a month. This is not the Europe we thought we would see when we took all those risks to leave our country’.
The struggles at TNT start in the summer of 2011. ‘The first problem was how to unite all the workers of the company and fight fear together, fight the blackmail of a low income and the threats of losing the job, a constant pressure that has made many of us ill. To rule, they pit us against one another, Italians against foreigners (who are 90% of us), Egyptians against Moroccans: ‘if you keep quiet I’ll pay you more, don’t get involved, that one is a spy, etc.’ But the mistrust the master built over years, we managed to destroy in a matter of months. A Moroccan said to me: ‘I would have never thought I’d trust an Egyptian’. Another: ‘It’s not only the rights I bring home that interest me, the most important thing is that now I sit at the table with you and we share everything’. Now we know that if workers are divided the master rules. A family was created thought this struggle: now when they touch one of us they touch us all. Eventually, even the Italian has become an immigrant, they now get the same salary, but in the struggle these divisions were neutralised. We managed to unite against the master for a dignified income and a better life for everyone.’
What were your working conditions before the beginning of your struggle?
Everyone was pushed to work faster. There was a supervisor who, day and night, shouted: ‘come on, come on, come on’, like a broken record! 200 people did the work of 500, so they saved the costs of 300 people. For five years, TNT enjoyed the best productivity levels in Italy but no one went to see under what conditions. The masters reaped great profits and the workers were badly treated and becoming ill. It’s a mode of slavery. When I suggested to people that we should say no, they would say they couldn’t for fear of losing their job.
At TNT and other companies in logistics, the supply of labour is managed by a consortium of cooperatives…
Initially there were four, now two. The system of cooperatives is a huge problem: every two years they change name so as to not pay tax and trick the workers. For 10-15 years the consortium at TNT has been the same, but with different name lenders, they find owners who are 80 years old and cannot be prosecuted. If they change the cooperative we are at risk of losing the job. We want first and foremost to get rid of the system of cooperatives. It’s better to deal directly with the company.
How did you concretely start organising yourselves?
The initial group comprised of around twenty workers out of 380. I went door to door to explain our contract, how they had exploited us and tricked us for years, to say that we shouldn’t accept this treatment any more, that it hurts our dignity. I started giving workers tasks to broaden the group and got a call from the managers to warn me that they knew about the meetings at my house. So why not do it in public, around town, to convince everyone? I went to 50-60 houses and in the days that followed there was a glimmer of hope at TNT. Many came to tell me that exploitation and the pain were shared, and that they wanted to join the struggle. Occasionally, to make the organisation grow, you have to tell a ‘lie’ to give courage: when there were twenty of us I would say that the others were behind us even if they didn’t participate, that there were a hundred of us, and then in two or three days this became true!
Not a lie then, just an anticipation…
Yes, we got there although we didn’t think we would. One must believe in what one does and be honest, without personal interests.
Did you look for a union to go on strike?
We didn’t even know what a union was: we only knew about it because of the renewal of the permits, to bring families back together or fill in a form, we knew of it as a service agency. We never went to them to demand our rights, because when anyone complains they say: ‘shut up and work’. They have forgotten about struggle. So I went around to look for a union that could support us in the struggle, done as we see them, through strikes and pickets that hurt the interests of the master. Instead of the union using the workers, it’s the workers who should use the union. In July 2011 we met Cobas, and I explained that within a week we would have organised a blockade. They were available, we started and we won.
What did you achieve with the victory at TNT?
The recognition of the national contract, wage increases (before then the basic pay was 6 euros per hour), holiday pay, sick pay etc. And we regained some dignity, which is even more important than money. Before then, we used to go to work as in a prison, every day was worse than the one before; now we have won over the fear that the master used to repress all struggles. Now we know that if we don’t fight to change our life, nobody will do it for us: we are the makers of our future. At Piacenza, Rifondazione [TN: an old communist party] used to hold a migrants demonstration once a year, and there weren’t many. Now after the struggles at TNT we have one every fortnight. Italians should do the same, because if it goes wrong one day the migrant will leave, but the Italians will stay here! The struggle belongs to everyone.
Have the Arab uprisings influenced the determination of the workers?
Yes, they’ve shown us that nothing is impossible, that we can win. Nobody would have thought it possible that Mubarek would be ousted after 30 years. That also happened at TNT, that’s why we haven’t spoken about a strike, rather ‘revolution’. For us it was like how it was in Egypt: TNT’s revolution.
After your victory, it seems that the struggle is broadening out?
After TNT, struggles started at GLS [parcel service owned by the Dutch postal service, at Antonio Ferrari, at Bartolini. We tried to extend the struggle in northern Italy as much as possible, like to Esselunga (supermarket chain) and in central Italy e,g. at SDA (courier service for the Italian postal service) in Rome. Now everyone knows that we can achieve better working conditions through struggle, it is an essential weapon: if we are united, we can overcome the fear and win every fight. TNT workers come primarily from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, there are Nigerians, Senegalese, Indians ®C there is no differentiation between us. At GLS there were lots of Indians, most of whom speak hardly any Italian and the employer just took advantage of that to exploit us even more. We organized assemblies with the Indian and Chinese workers, we sensed the difference between them and the Arab workers but I said: “Forget where we come from, we are all workers here and we are all being exploited. We just need to concentrate on that.”
In June 2012 the struggles against the Cooperatives of global giant IKEA began…
Workers employed at IKEA in Italy come from approximately 30 countries. Initially we got in touch with two Moroccan workers from TNT. We then went there every day to convince others one by one. After the first struggle we signed an agreement stating that the national collective agreement applies and the dignity of employees and their union organization are respected; thus, the rhythms of work and the activities are regulated. Previously they had increased the daily unloading target of 12 to 13 ‘warehouse rows’ to 35. During the crisis they treat us increasingly like machines, they pressure us to raise productivity but wages always stay the same.
After a few months the Cooperative tried to go back to the conditions before the strike. It wanted to almost triple the average number of palettes; they cut most of the employees’ hours to 4 hours so that they compulsorily had to stay at home two days a week and only earned 400 euros a month. When productivity fell, everyone had to work overtime. In October they locked out about 90 workers, fired 12, through a struggle we were able to get 3 of these workers reinstated, so that 9 remained fired. So we blockaded the gates every day. On November 2nd there was an extremely brutal police attack at gate 9, there were 20 people injured and 30 workers got charged, I got 6 charges. I don’t know whether I’ll get problems with my residents permit in the future but no struggle is without risk. The most important thing is that the struggle achieves its goal.
We’ve met with the company more than once but nothing ever came out of it. On December 18th, students, political groups and social centres from Bologna, organized a great picketline in front of the IKEA warehouse together with the IKEA workers. Customers acted in solidarity because they are being exploited exactly like us. In the last few days IKEA has finally given in, the 9 dismissed workers were reinstated. The employer understood that the damage for them would otherwise only get bigger. The battle is widening out, more newspapers from Sweden, Turkey and the Arabic world are getting in touch with me. IKEA is trying to break into North Africa so they have to be careful, their interests around the world are at stake. The employer is only looking out for their own interests and that’s exactly where we have to hit them.
For years we have been discussing the effectiveness of strikes. Here is a strike that hurts the employer and is successful because it hits the strategic points of the production system. How important was the exact knowledge of the production cycle for you?
When we blockaded the gates, we chose the days that would inflict the most damage on the company. You had to choose a time and place that actually struck the interests of the employer so that they don’t succeed in making up for the damage that we inflict on them. Strike when it’s possible and unite the employees of the various companies. Today, when they attack the TNT workers or the workers from GLS in Piacenza, then workers from Bologna, Modena and Verona show solidarity. We have to coordinate the different struggles with each other so that the employer has no weak point that he can attack.
If you come with a flag and start a traditional strike, if you climb onto the roof, then you can stay there your whole life, you won’t change anything. No more hunger strikes or things of this nature! The employer should starve! We’re suffering enough every day at work!
This isn’t only our struggle, it’s the struggle of everyone in the crisis, so if we win in one place it gets better for us all. Comrades from other towns came to the picketline in Piacenza; they had to travel for hours to get here for 5 o’clock in the morning, in the dark and cold to support us and to link up the struggles. We have to thank them from the bottom of our hearts, the IKEA victory is also down to them.
* Translation by Arianna Bove and Wildcat.