In Italy’s Main Shipyard, Anti-Islam Policy Divides Workers

In Monfalcone, in northeastern Italy, the far-right mayor has banned public Muslim prayer. Home to Europe’s largest shipyard, the town is a crucible of Italy’s rising migrant workforce — and the racist backlash against it.

A general view of the Fincantieri's shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy, in February 2019. (Photo by Miguel Medina / AFP via Getty Images)

Holding her delayed end-of-year press conference on January 4, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni was asked about the “Monfalcone affair.” TV reporter Elisa Saltarelli sought Meloni’s opinion on the supposed “Islamization” of the northeastern Italian town, as denounced by Mayor Anna Maria Cisint, a member of Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega party.

Monfalcone, a historic center of shipbuilding that recently surpassed thirty thousand residents, made national headlines after Cisint’s decision to prevent Muslim worshippers from praying in either of the town’s Islamic cultural centers. This can be seen as the culmination of recent developments in which institutional racism has increasingly shaped local politics. But the policies enacted have also made Monfalcone a special vantage point on the contradictions of the far right in office — claiming to defend the Italian native workforce from Muslims even as it undermines job stability generally.

From Migrant Work to a Transformed City

Monfalcone is home to Europe’s largest shipyard, one of eight domestic plants of Fincantieri, a multinational in which the Italian state holds a majority share. The shipyard, mainly devoted to building cruise ships, employs sixteen hundred people, but most production is carried out by the thousands of blue-collar workers employed through various levels of contracting-out.

What the FIOM trade union calls the “jungle” of third-party firms operating within Fincantieri’s sites is difficult to decipher. Approximately five hundred outside firms operate in the Monfalcone and Marghera shipyards, and some of the many kinds of contractors also use staffing agencies. One phenomenon on the rise is the use of foreign-born subcontractors. Sometimes these are immigrant workers pushed by the prime contractor to start a business to cut costs.

In other cases foreign workers sniff out how the system works, understanding that contractors are always happy to have an extra subcontractor to compete with others. There is also some limited international secondment from Romania, where Fincantieri’s subsidiary Vard has two shipyards. Production at one such site in Tulcea is interconnected with the Monfalcone plant, for which it makes some hull sections.

Given the shipyard’s sheer size, Monfalcone has always been a company town, whose society and politics are heavily shaped by shipbuilding. There are other manufacturing operations too, but the shipyard alone accounts for more than half of the province’s GDP. The title of Paolo Fragiacomo’s book on Monfalcone puts things in perspective: The Big Factory and the Small Town. What happened in the workplace always had major consequences for the town more widely. The transformation of production in the late 1980s, consolidated over the 1990s, was no exception.

The labor struggles of the previous era had made employment conditions rather more rigid. Contracting-out to third parties was sharply restricted, and the collective bargaining agreement covering metalworkers was applied to the indirectly hired, pursuing an egalitarian and solidaristic approach aimed at leveling out workers’ conditions. But with globalization came significant changes that led to the drastic reduction of European shipbuilding and the rise of its Asian counterpart (notably, South Korea since the 1980s and China from the 2000s).

In many European countries, shipbuilding has all but disappeared (e.g., Denmark), while in others it has undergone downsizing (e.g., France). In Italy it has shown a certain resilience, partly due to the effectiveness of defensive struggles in the sector, in which unions and local authorities each played a role. But when it comes to the organization of work, capital (which remains in public hands in Fincantieri’s case, though it was financialized after Matteo Renzi’s mid-2010s centrist government decided to float it on the stock market) has pushed back against the workers through a hyperflexibilized model based on contracting and outsourcing.

This is the backdrop to the increasing use of immigrant labor, which is owed to an intertwining of profitability questions and demographic factors. The shipyard was always a pole of attraction for labor as well as politically managed (internal) migration, notably under the fascist regime. Indeed, fascism favored the influx of nonunionized labor from the southern region of Puglia in order to discipline and “cleanse” a working class that had shown remarkable combativity. This was seen as an “Austrian-minded” working class, which looked across the border to an international labor movement — thus needed “Italianizing.”

Beginning in the 1990s, however, a different kind of process began, destined to change the face of Monfalcone. First, there was a new wave of arrivals from the Campania region around Naples, which was deeply stigmatized at the time. This was indeed the period that the Northern-regionalist Lega party took off. Yet ironically, the Lega that once so attacked these southern Italians would more recently build a base of support among them. Immigration then became an international phenomenon, generally meaning skilled labor from Eastern Europe. Notably, Croatia has a deep-rooted history in shipbuilding, and Romania boasts strong vocational training.

Finally, it was Bangladeshi immigration’s turn. The “pioneers” first arrived in Marghera and then Monfalcone in the late 1990s. Today, present for over two decades, they constitute the main foreign community resident in the town. Then came relatives arriving through family reunification and children born in Italy. According to January 1, 2023, Istat data, there are 4,701 Bangladeshi-origin foreign residents in Monfalcone (2,727 male and 1,974 female). To these we should add those who have obtained Italian citizenship after the long residence period required by law. Others have remigrated to the United Kingdom; that country is often seen as the “land of opportunity,” though Brexit has complicated this rather.

Monfalcone has thus changed significantly over the years, its “whiteness” challenged by social and demographic change. This is obviously not, as the local right-wingers’ aggressive propaganda would have it, a plot for “ethnic replacement.” It is simply that, given the transformations in the world of production, the population drawn to the town has become more multicultural. But there is no corresponding “recognition” of this multiculturalism in the spheres of politics or labor or in terms of opportunities for migrants.

Bangladeshi workers employed by the thicket of contractors and subcontractors in Monfalcone put up with individually negotiated pay packets and a hierarchy of exploitation. They experience occupational segmentation every day (although some individual workers are rising the professional ladder). This is why the “English dream” is so powerful within the Bangladeshi community.

There is longer-standing migration to the United Kingdom (dating back even to before Bangladesh’s independence), due to colonial ties and the demand for labor for Britain’s postwar reconstruction. Some of the now multiple generations of Bangladeshis have reached lofty standing (doctors, parliamentarians, even a lord mayor of Newcastle). These historical processes are surely contradictory, but the “English dream” narrative emphasizes the more benign aspects. This is especially true from the standpoint of Italy and Monfalcone, where segregation and a provincial cultural climate offer little short-term hope of social mobility.

The Right in Power

Since World War II, Monfalcone’s politics have followed an arc well summarized by Fabio Del Bello, who was long a councilor in the town:

In the beginning the dominant party was the Christian Democracy (DC): a right-wing DC in the 1950s, a center-left DC in the following decade. In 1975 the united forces of the Left won. Then things headed the same way as the [post-Communist] center-left, in the direction of the Democratic Party. In 2016 the Lega won, on the immigration issue.

As a result of the transformations in the 1990s, the center-left was unable to cope with a production model based on contracts, which outsourced its social contradictions to the “small town” itself: low-paid work, with notable pockets of informality and irregularity; a strong demand for housing (totally left up to the private market, to the point that Monfalcone is on the list of towns legally defined as having “high housing tension”); questions of the social and linguistic inclusion of foreign workers, etc. “The big factory” lost interest in what was happening outside its walls.

“From this point of view, the link with the territory” has been lost, argues Gabriele Polo, former editor of left-wing newspaper il manifesto and an expert on the area. These are dynamics of simple extractivism. (Center-)left local administrations, Polo continues, “always delegated the conflict with Fincantieri to the trade union; when the latter was no longer able to pursue it, all talk of bargaining died out.” The radical-right Lega conquered the city of shipyards in 2016 with the election of Mayor Cisint, who was returned with an even easier victory in 2022 (albeit against a backdrop of mass abstention).

The Right won thanks to polarization over the immigration issue, with rhetoric critical of Fincantieri’s choices and of the center-left’s subalternity (well-illustrated shortly before Cisint’s election, when Democratic mayor Silvia Altran withdrew the town hall’s status as a plaintiff in lawsuits against the company over exposure to asbestos, which has claimed many lives among older generations of workers). The local Lega also advocates reducing subcontracting, deemed a cause of “social dumping” and of the replacement of local labor with foreigners. Its story has elements of truth, but in reality things are more complex.

On the one hand is a de facto segmentation within the workforce, producing a complementarity (albeit based on ethnic hierarchies) between Italian and migrant labor. The demographic factor cannot be overlooked, either. Still, there is no shortage of cases of direct competition. This happened most emblematically in the case of painting work, where the race to the bottom on costs pushed out historic contractor Beraud: a unionized company, with well-rounded collective bargaining and a good level of protections; its workforce had been predominantly Italian. With the change of contract, a new firm took over, without taking on the Beraud employees and instead hiring largely immigrant workers. The rise of foreign-born subcontractors may encourage further recruitment from outside Italy, as these firms are in a better position to take advantage of the 2002 labor-migration law, known after its right-wing drafters Umberto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini.

But we ought to confront the problem the other way around: we need to start with rights, the production model, and labor organizing, in order to improve protections for workers (be they Italian or migrant). From this standpoint, the Lega is caught in two contradictions. On the one hand, at the national scale, it has always supported free-marketeer and deregulatory policies: while at the Monfalcone shipyard it criticizes subcontracting because it is a structural driver of immigration, in public projects nationally the Lega leader Salvini has liberalized this practice, in the recent amendment of the Procurement Code.

On the other hand, Meloni’s government has recognized businesses’ need for migrant labor, including in the naval-mechanical sector. Here we find the usual contradiction between economics (the need for cheap labor) and politics (anti-immigration rhetoric) typical not only of contemporary right-wingers but, more generally, of Western countries’ governance of immigration in recent decades.

Monfalcone is thus a good vantage point for capturing how economic and political themes interact. Mayor Cisint’s administrations have been notably unwilling to acknowledge the multiethnic and multicultural character of Monfalcone. Instead they have taken an endless series of punitive measures: barriers in access to local welfare (including some measures thrown out by the courts, for instance discrimination in the processes of access to public housing and rental benefits); town ordinances in the name of urban propriety (fining contract workers who, lacking access to the canteen, eat a meal outside the shipyard gates; penalties for those who walk around in “dirty” blue overalls in supermarkets and public transportation, even if this is because of lack of access to locker rooms); the removal of benches from the main square, where many Bangladeshis socialized; a ban on Bangladeshi kids playing cricket in public places; extreme harshness against naval yard workers who ride bicycles to work without lights; and the ban on clothed bathing for Muslim women.

Now, following the October 7 Hamas attacks, a renewed Islamophobia has gone as far as suspending the ability to pray inside two Islamic cultural centers in the city. But there was also the stigmatization of second-generation youths speaking out against Israel (whose flag was displayed by the town hall) and the wide use of femonationalist narratives against Bangladeshi women, painted as victims of a peculiarly Islamic (hence not “Italian”) sexism. The EU elections are approaching, and events in Monfalcone may be a card for Matteo Salvini’s Lega to play in its competition with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. Not surprisingly, the mayor has become a national figure, also speaking at the recent meetup in Florence organized by the Lega and European allies like Marine Le Pen.

Spaces of Resistance

The measure restricting religious freedom, which is in fact guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution has, however, provoked a conflict that has taken on mass dimensions for the first time.

Self-organized by Islamic cultural centers and the Bangladeshi community, a massive procession of eight thousand people marched through Monfalcone on December 23. Taking up the tones of the “clash of civilizations,” the mayor spoke of Christmas being violated, either because shopping was disrupted or in the name of reviving a traditionalist and exclusionary Christianity. There were many Bangladeshi men and women at the demonstration who waved Italian and EU flags to assert their right to citizenship and participation in the public sphere. But there were also Italians in solidarity with them.

For Alessandro Perrone of the USB grassroots union, “We haven’t seen a march of this size in Monfalcone since the protests against the pension reform attempted by Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s.” For Sani Bhuyan, a Democratic city councilor and a point of reference for the Bangladeshi community, it was a demonstration of “dissent against policies that affect minorities’ rights.” Cristiana Morsolin, a councilor for left-wing la Sinistra and former center-left mayoral candidate, hopes it will be a starting point for all social problems to come to the fore, including labor.

So, what about labor? At the demonstration last month, only the teachers’ federation of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) actively participated. Members of their FLC CGIL union daily deal with the multicultural Monfalcone of the future, amidst the difficulties of the present. But for the other categories and union confederations, this was a missed opportunity. To represent a workforce like the contracted hires at Fincantieri, the union needs to renew its way of doing things. What happens outside the shipyard, including Lega policies, also influences what happens inside. Social vulnerability leads to labor vulnerability and vice versa. Future struggles have to start from the recognition that the two are connected — especially in a context like Monfalcone, where local and global meet.