Facing Crisis, Italian Women Battle Immigrants For Domestic Helper Jobs

Opened to old and new competition for work
Opened to old and new competition for work
Mauro Pianta

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%."

The profile

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.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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