TURIN - It may not be wartime, but the economic crisis is changing basic facts of life. And in some cases, changing them backward in time. One notable change is that Italian women are rediscovering jobs as domestic helpers (housecleaners and care givers), that had been taken over in recent years by a virtual labor market monopoly of immigrants from Eastern Europe.
The battle cry of these new Made in Italy domestic helpers is that "No foreigner will ever know how to cook or iron as well as we do."
The competition for employment between Italians and their Romanian, Ukrainian or Moldovan colleagues is playing out in a very saturated labor market. Italian or otherwise, today it is hard to find a job. Cash-strapped families are increasingly coming up with makeshift solutions that mean fewer fixed employment opportunities.
This sector is still largely dominated by immigrants, but there has been a definite turn toward Italian women for the care of the elderly or the sick. This can be seen, for example, from the registration for specialized training courses all over Italy. Federica Rossi Gasparrini, the president of the Housewives Association, says, "Within the past two years in Milan, Rome and Udine, the number of Italians registered has tripled."
ACLI COLF, an Italian Christian domestic employment association that offers 40 courses a year, confirms the trend. "Italians are rushing to take part in these programs," says Raffaella Maioni, who runs the national organization.
In Turin, Alessandra Riminucci is in charge of family services for Obiettivo Lavoro, an employment agency. "The data show that the number of domestic helpers from Turin hired through our agency has gone from 948 in 2008 to 1,757 in 2010, an increase of 85%."
There is no need to consult sociologists to explain the shift in the data. But who are these "returning" Italian domestic helpers? Their profile is largely the same:. They are between 45 and 50 years old, have worked in the past but are now unemployed. If the women are married, their husbands are jobless; but many of the women are divorced or separated and raising children alone.
In recent years, domestic helpers have typically been foreigners. According to a 2010 study by Censis, a socioeconomics think tank, 71.6% of them are immigrants. They are Romanian (19.4%), Ukrainian (10.4%), Polish (7.7%), and Moldovan (6.2%), among others. According to Censis, there were some 1.5 million domestic workers employed in 2.4 million Italian families.
How are Italians different from the immigrants? "Italians," Maione explains, "have their own homes, and so don't "live in," but prefer to work by the hour." Domestic helpers from abroad tend to be younger and better educated than their Italian colleagues. Among foreign workers, 37.6% have graduated from secondary school and 6.8% have a university degree, compared to 23.2% and 2.5% of Italian domestic workers.
What do caregivers do, exactly? They take care of the elderly, cook for them, do errands, pay bills, monitor medications, and take care of their hygiene. How much do they earn? It depends. When there is a regular contract, they start at 6.30 euros an hour. "In general," Maioni says, "Italians prefer to be paid under the table in return for more money, 10 euros an hour."
But there are also many who give up after only a few months of work. Vilma Gabutti of the Turin intercultural association, ASAI, says, "It is not easy work. You have to be able to get along with the elderly, who often don't want to accept that they need help."
Italians, however, are still the most in-demand. "The relatives are looking for someone as a substitute "affectionate daughter" figure, to make them feel less guilty,” says Gabutti. “They want her to be able to speak the local dialect and cook local dishes." Foreign workers are beginning to stream into Italian cooking classes. Blow after blow. Dish after dish. The war of the domestic helpers has only just begun.