While a large percentage of domestic workers in the Sebino’s gasket manufacturing sector are now immigrant women, there was a time when the job was widespread among Italians. Local residents remember their grandmothers, or other family members, patiently deburring and screening gaskets at home. When immigrants began to arrive, they gradually took over a task that was becoming unappealing for most Italians.
Occasionally, men are involved in the process too. Said [not his real name], who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, worked for 16 years as a stonemason but was laid off three years ago. Since then, his efforts to find another job in the area have had no success.
I met him in Sarnico, a town on the Iseo Lake’s western shore, on a paved waterfront overlooking the place where the Oglio River flows into the lake. Two fishing rods leaning against the metal banister sparkled in the sunlight. Dark rubber cut-offs were scattered on the stairs of an old house dominating the river. Colorful houses on the opposite bank punctuated a green, hilly landscape.
Said held a white plastic bag full of dark O-ring gaskets—the waste of his latest sorting efforts. He put the bag open on a metal bench to let me take a look. “I lived in Germany for a year but I love this place,” he told me, pointing to the landscape. “In Italy, I pay a 450-500 euros monthly mortgage for the house I bought in 2006. I had a job in Germany, but I spent 900 euros per month on rent.”
Born and raised in Morocco, Said has lived in Italy for the last 25 years—and has become an Italian citizen. But after losing his job, he had to turn to gasket sorting to pay the bills. “I stopped doing it two weeks ago because I am dealing with impaired vision. When I wake up in the morning, it is all blurry.” According to Said, sorting gaskets might have contributed to his sight problems. “We use a neon lamp, which reflects on the white surface where I work,” he said.
While standing on the waterfront, Said showed me a group of houses where, he said, other domestic workers live. “On certain days, those stairs are full of boxes brimming with gaskets. When they are ready, a contractor in a white van comes and picks them up,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Said does not want to leave Italy. “This is my country, and I have grown up here. My children were born here—they are Italian too.”
Said’s experience—and the stories of all the workers I met—made me think about Italy’s approach to immigration. Although Italians still think of themselves as a mostly homogeneous society, the face of the country is changing rapidly. According to a 2018 book by researcher Michele Colucci, titled “History of foreign immigration to Italy,” immigration has been a structural phenomenon for at least 25 years. However, for decades it was left mainly unchecked, an almost invisible presence in Italy’s society. “Immigration […] has now reached the third generation, while we are still talking about the second one,” Colucci said in a 2018 interview.
It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the first migratory movements, especially from Italy’s former colonies—Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia—occurred. However, for most of the 1970s, the number of foreigners living in Italy had barely reached 200,000 people, and only in the late 1990s it topped the psychological threshold of 1 million. By 2022, that figure had exceeded 5 million, accounting for about 9 percent of the total population.
This relatively recent growth of Italy’s foreign-born population may help explain why many Italians still regard immigration as a new trend, and policies have historically addressed it as a “temporary emergency.”
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Italy approved an organic and systematic law on immigration, named after the then-Minister of Justice Claudio Martelli, which also introduced the right to asylum in Italy. The killing of the South African farm worker Jerry Masslo in 1989 was a tragic game-changer.
Masslo had arrived in Italy the year before, after his daughter had been killed during a demonstration in South Africa, but he was denied asylum. He ended up working illegally in the tomato fields in Villa Literno, 30 kilometers from Naples. His murder at the hands of a gang of criminals sparked a historic strike among the local farm worker community and a massive anti-racism protest in Rome, attended by 200,000 people.
The Martelli law was approved as a result of a huge mobilization of Catholic segments of the Italian society, human rights organizations, and unions. However, the later approval of a new law, the 1998 Turco-Napolitano reform, wound up dividing the anti-racism movement: part of it felt that the new law was not doing enough to promote long-term integration.
More than two decades later, the condition of many immigrants—even some who, like Said, have succeeded in obtaining Italian citizenship—is still challenging. The plight of migrant rural workers and tomato-pickers in Southern Italy is notorious 33 years after Masslo's killing, but the exploitation of immigrant workers in the wealthy and industrialized North is rarely discussed.
The Sebino activists at the crossroads between environmental and social justice
For Giuseppe Locatelli, one of the founders of the local environmental NGO EcoSebino Project, tackling the social and ecological effects of heavy industrialization in the Sebino area—particularly in the gasket manufacturing sector—has become a life mission.
Founded in 2019, the EcoSebino Project aims at addressing “both the social and the environmental issues affecting the area,” Locatelli explained. Activists describe the Sebino as a fragile and vulnerable territory, a localized blend of critical issues that can be found in many other places of the world: intensive production, environmental concerns, an economic turmoil that over the years has disrupted local communities, exacerbating workers’ vulnerability and social inequities. According to Locatelli, the so-called “Rubber Valley” provides a glimpse of the often troubled relationship between economic growth, social rights, and environmental sustainability.
“At first, it was a perverse godsend that brought a lot of wealth and work,” Locatelli said of gasket manufacturing. “Today, the system is starting to crack: you breathe pollution, you see your environmental context destroyed, and the counterpart is that wages are not what they used to be.”
Before COVID-19, local activists organized some collective cleanups to raise awareness about the industry’s long-standing environmental impact. Local residents were encouraged to clean up parks, streams, and rural areas from the rubber scraps that had been illegally dumped in the area over the years. “We tried to mobilize the community by taking care of the territory and doing what the institutions in charge should do,” Locatelli said.
Activists have also raised concerns about air pollution, especially in the Adrara area—a narrow valley that houses most gasket plants and used to be dubbed ‘Death Valley.’ Following complaints by citizens, in 2011, the town of Adrara San Martino launched an association called ARTEA with some local businesses to tackle the emission problem. In 2013, ARTEA established a set of measures and good practices aimed at reducing “all industrial emissions into the atmosphere.” However, activists worry that the initiative has not entirely fixed the problem.
“If you walk around town in the early morning, especially in Adrara San Martino, there is this terrifying smell of gaskets,” said Lorenzo Poli, another member of the EcoSebino Project. Asked about the issue, ARPA Bergamo, the local branch of a public environmental protection agency that participated in the ARTEA initiative, said that since Adrara’s mayor adopted the agreed measures, “our Department has not received any particular reports.”
In their efforts to raise awareness, activists have also clashed with what Locatelli described as “the local inflexible work mentality,” a widespread rhetoric in Italy’s productive North. According to Poli, working in gasket manufacturing is widely seen as “a privilege, pretty much a matter of honor.” As a result, criticism about the industry’s shortcomings is often met with resistance. Additionally, the idea that “environmental protection necessarily collides with jobs” is deeply rooted in the community, Poli explained.
“In the Sebino, we are stuck in the 1970s or 80s, when the conflict between the environment and work had been ‘settled’ by denying both the environmental issues and the worker safety problem,” said Locatelli. “This needs to change.”