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Story Publication logo August 23, 2022

“We Just Want Dignity.” The Plight of Foreign Workers (and the Environment) in Italy’s Rubber Gasket District


rubber gaskets in hand

This project investigates the exploitation of foreign workers in Northern Italy in rubber gasket...


Boxes full of rubber gaskets and seals near a house in the Sebino area, in Northern Italy. Image by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

The names of the domestic workers in this story have been changed to protect their identity. 

On September 30, 2019, law enforcement inspected the depths of the Iseo Lake, in Northern Italy. The operation, announced the week before by a local commander of the Carabinieri, an Italian police force with military status, aimed to ascertain what types of waste were polluting the lake—the fourth largest basin in the heavily industrialized Lombardy region. The answer came as a shock to the local community. Below that sheet of water nestled in the mountains, along with old cars and discarded military equipment, divers spotted a 40-meter-high and 10-meter-wide pyramid of industrial gaskets and rubber waste. 

The gasket mountain, found near Tavernola, a town of 2,000 people on the lake’s western shore, is an unsettling vestige of the industrial tradition of the Sebino area, where the Iseo Lake is located. Stretching between the cities of Bergamo and Brescia, the Sebino is a mix of lush hills, pre-alpine valleys, and bustling towns. The region is known for its thriving gasket manufacturing, which has earned it the nickname of “Rubber Valley.” 

“Gasket manufacturing in the area started in the 1950s when Germany relocated this production there— because it was toxic for workers and the environment and posed a huge problem in terms of waste disposal,” said environmental activist Giuseppe Locatelli, one of the founders of the local nonprofit organization EcoSebino Project. 

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Over the years, some of the local family businesses have turned into multinational companies. From hydraulics to household appliances, automotive, and construction, gaskets are commonly used to seal the junction between two surfaces, including pipes or engines. Those produced in the Sebino serve multiple industries and are exported worldwide. Pre-pandemic data estimated that the area was home to nearly 300 companies and generated yearly revenue of approximately 2 billion euros. 

In 2018, the Sebino ranked first among the 10 industrial districts in Italy with the best growth and profit performance. Despite a temporary slowdown caused by COVID-19, in 2021, the export recorded an 11.8 percent growth compared to pre-pandemic data. The Sebino’s gaskets have been used by world-class car manufacturers, including Porsche, Renault, and Volkswagen.

A warehouse with a sign that reads, “Building area … Option to set up production of rubber items.” Image by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

But according to local activists, the wealth generated by the sector came at a high environmental price—and has been enjoyed inequitably. 

Almost three years after the Iseo Lake’s inspection, the rubber mountain still lies unhindered on the lake bed because law enforcement could not identify the perpetrators. In December 2021, the Lombardy Region allocated 60,000 euros to start an environmental investigation and a feasibility study to manage rubber waste. However, it remains unclear when or whether the lake-bed gaskets will be removed. 

“We live just to be able to eat—nothing else” 

The Credaro area, a town of 3,000 inhabitants in the province of Bergamo, has traditionally been home to many domestic workers—meaning people who work in their houses, performing manual tasks that have frequently been outsourced in gasket manufacturing. One is “deburring” (“sbavatura”), which consists of detaching gaskets from the rubber mold with which they are produced. The other is the “sorting” (“cernita”), the final product screening to discard defective items carrying bubbles, fissures, or blemishes. 

Deburring and screening gaskets require focus and good manual skills. Sorting 1,000 pieces typically pays around 70 cents, but screening the same number of the smaller ones—a precision work—is paid up to 1 euro, workers say. Deburring is compensated depending on how many times workers need to pull the gasket away from the mold to remove the scraps. Gaskets typically connect to their mold in up to three places, depending on their size. The pay for 10,000 pulls ranges between 1 and 1.50 euros, workers estimate. 

Some of the companies in the area outsource these tasks to external contractors, who may entrust the work to subcontractors—sometimes, as a “cash-in-hand” job. According to local activists, over the last decade, foreign women have accounted for an increasingly larger slice of this underpaid, sometimes undeclared, workforce. 

Ines, a Moroccan woman who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, opened the door of her apartment wearing a gray sweatshirt and black trousers, holding her 2-year-old daughter with her left arm. Her brown, silky hair was tied in a tail at the nape of her neck. After welcoming me into her living room, bathed in the warm afternoon light, she laid her daughter on a gray rug and disappeared beyond the door. She came back holding a dark plastic bag full of small green O-ring gaskets. 

Plastic bag full of small O-ring gaskets in Ines’ house. Image by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

“I’ve sorted them, meaning that I’ve checked if they were well-refined and separated the good from the damaged ones,” she said. “If I make mistakes, the contractor brings the product back and asks me to check them all over again.” Ines has four children, and her youngest, who was quietly playing on the rug with a small doll, has health issues. “She is always unwell and cries often. Doctors haven’t figured out yet what the problem is. I spent an entire month at the hospital with her,” Ines said, nodding at her child. Finding a decent job while taking care of her children is hard, but her current job is no cakewalk, Ines said. “It’s not like working in a factory. It’s an off-the-book job,” she added, clarifying that she is paid under the table. 

That morning Ines woke up at 5 am to finish sorting the gaskets in time for the arrival of her contractor, who was set to bring her more work. “I work up to 10 hours per day. And I earn 250-300 euros monthly at most,” she explained, slightly shaking her head. Her husband has a full-time job, but they struggle to make ends meet. “Rent is 450 euros per month.” According to Ines, contractors sometimes understate the number of gaskets they are bringing to workers so that they can pay them less. “You end up working more than what they tell you. But you can’t do anything about it, you don’t know for which company you’re ultimately working,” she said. “You only meet the contractor.” 

Ines has lived in Italy for 13 years and has worked in the gasket sector since 2014—most of the time, without an employment contract. She previously deburred gaskets, which she described as an exhausting task. “It leaves a bad smell in the house and dirt everywhere. I was worried it could hurt my children,” Ines said. She is now using a forehead light to discern the damaged pieces from the good ones. “But my eyes and my neck hurt. My friends tell me to look for a job in a factory because it would pay better, but I can’t drive. Also, my husband doesn’t want me to work because I am supposed to take care of the children first,” she said. 

Stories like this are hardly rare in the area, activists say. However, given their extreme vulnerability, few workers are willing to share their experiences. I met Aisha and Nabila, two Moroccan female workers, in Aisha’s house in a town located on the western edge of Franciacorta—a hilly area famous for its sparkling white wine. A white hijab framing her eyes, covered by round glasses, Nabila sat on a floral sofa in the living room. The two women are old friends, they told me. A translucent plastic bag on a blue-gray carpet was overflowing with orange-colored gaskets, which Aisha described as discarded pieces from her recent gasket sorting efforts. The woman, who wore a black hoodie and dark pants, grabbed four rubber rings and made them spin between her thumb and index finger to simulate the movements required to examine them. Her nimble gestures made two gold-plated bracelets clink on her left wrist. Orange-colored rubber off-cuts were scattered throughout the carpet. While her husband is currently unemployed, Aisha has been working at home without a regular contract for a few years. 

“In the past, I worked in different factories until my employers promised me a permanent employment contract,” Aisha said. “When they discovered I was pregnant, they laid me off.” Aisha does not miss working in factories: “It was hard. We just had a few minutes to go to the bathroom.” But working at home has its challenges. “I have never earned more than 300 euros per month, although I work all day long. But I need this money to pay rent.” Sometimes, her long work hours are heavily underpaid. “If the contractor finds damaged pieces among the gaskets I’ve already screened, he brings me the whole bag back, and I start over.” One time, she was only paid 50 euros for a job that had taken her several days. “The contractors tell you that they’re giving you a certain number of gaskets—but you have no way to know if that number is true,” she explained, implying that counting tens of thousands of gaskets of varying sizes would be impossible for most workers. 

A few days earlier, Aisha, who moved to Italy when she was 10 with her siblings, had had her gas utility shut off because she hadn’t paid her bills. Her husband’s unemployment could also hurt his immigration status. Immigrants to Italy need to show they have a job to renew their residence permits. “Luckily, I have a long-stay residence permit. But my husband’s permit is about to expire, and we can prove no legal income,” she told me, visibly emotional. 

Aisha shows the O-ring gaskets that she works with. Image by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

Nabila, who also works at home, moved to Italy in 2001. “In the past, I worked in restaurants and as a housekeeper,” she said. With the economic crisis and three children, finding jobs has become harder. She now spends her days deburring gaskets, bending over a table in her garage for hours. “Over time, your bones hurt and you lose your sight,” she said. 

Unlike Aisha, Nabila has an employment contract—a short-term one. However, her contractor regularly deprives her of a percentage of her salary, she said. According to Nabila, as soon as the man brings her a check, they go to the bank together. After collecting her cash, Nabila gives him part of the amount. “I have to give him at least 300-400 euros, depending on how much I made that month—it could be around 800-1,000 euros monthly,” she said. “He tells me: if you want to work, that’s how it works.” According to Nabila, she has no choice. “I have three children and a rent to pay. My husband works at the market and doesn’t make much.” 

Aisha and Nabila said that they do not speak out against this system for fear of losing their jobs. They also noted that domestic workers who do not have regular employment contracts are socially invisible: when the pandemic struck and work decreased, they had no unemployment benefits. 

“We chose to change our lives, leave Morocco and move to Italy to seek another life,” Nabila said in a firm voice. “But we live just to be able to eat—nothing else.” 

The Rubber Valley—where rubber waste is everywhere 

Those who have served as domestic workers are well aware of the silent rules on which the system has relied. They recognize the white vans used by contractors to distribute the gaskets. They can describe the acrid smell released by dozens of kilograms of rubber amassed in their houses. They have shared the fear that their children could toss small rubber items into their mouths or inhale harmful substances. If there is one thing they do not usually know, it is where those gaskets are coming from—meaning the companies for which their contractor works. 

Karim, who served as a domestic worker without a work contract in 2014 and 2015 and is now employed in a local gasket factory, described the system with plenty of details. “I was struggling with two children and a mortgage to pay, and I lost my house due to the economic crisis. Without a job, it was the only option.” Born and raised in Morocco, Karim, who has lived in Italy for 20 years, remembers his small apartment full of boxes filled with gaskets. After one of his children chewed a rubber item, he quit. “Now, I try to help domestic workers find another job.” 

Karim, a nature-lover, has gradually become aware of how, over the years, gasket manufacturing has affected the surroundings. On his smartphone, he keeps videos of bags full of rubber waste abandoned in nearby rural areas. “This was last year, near a house overlooking the stream, where people were working on gaskets,” he said, showing me the footage. 

Rubber scraps from gasket production are considered “special waste,” meaning that, with limited exceptions, town dumps do not accept them. Rubber waste may undergo recovery or recycling processes, including being used as combustible material in cement plants, burnt in incinerators, or repurposed for other productions. Non-recoverable waste is destined for disposal in authorized plants. Prices range between 100-150 euros per ton for the recovery processes and 200 euros for waste disposal. However, according to Karim, contractors occasionally ask workers to get rid of rubber scraps in exchange for an additional fee. Said, a friend of Karim who also served as a domestic worker for a while, confirmed the information. “He tried with me one time, saying that he would pay me something more. I refused,” he said, referring to a contractor. 

The day I first met Karim in late March 2022, he drove me to a valley watered by the Uria, a stream that flows into the nearby Oglio River. The 10th-century Trebecco castle protruded from a rocky spur overlooking the valley. After walking for a few minutes, we stopped in a small clearing covered in brownish dry leaves. A few feet away, a protection net impeded access to a slope declining toward the stream. Behind the net, we spotted two plastic bags full of black cylindrical seals among bushes and dry leaves.

Plastic bags full of cylindrical seals near Credaro. Images by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

As we moved deeper into the woods along the creek, rubber waste and gasket off-cuts—the remnants of years of illegal dumping—were entangled in bushes, scattered on the grass and rocks, or covered with soil. Karim stuck his bare hands into the ground, pulling up twisted webs of rubber waste buried in soil.

Rubber waste near the Uria stream in Castelli Calepio. Images by Giulia Pozzi. Italy, 2022.

“The fact that contractors have often been responsible for waste disposal from deburring and screening might have facilitated waste dumping,” suggested Lorenzo Poli, a member of the environmental organization EcoSebino Project. 

“At the mouth of the Po River, they even found fishes stuck in seals,” said Locatelli. “In local streams, there are meters and meters of rubber waste piled up over the decades.” 

A partial response, some unanswered questions

 In 2018, a journalistic investigation by the TV show Piazzapulita made headlines in Italy. Piazzapulita journalists were the first to uncover the illegal domestic work system in gasket manufacturing. “Some people lost their jobs, including a contractor that I knew. People started to be afraid,” Karim said. He added that after the investigation aired on national television, some workers were legally hired and the underground system stopped for a while—only to find new gimmicks to survive. One example is how gaskets are now distributed to domestic workers that have no employment contract. “Previously, it was the contractor who brought the stuff to workers. Now, you don’t see contractors often: they sometimes bring the stuff to a woman who has a large garage. This woman distributes the gaskets among the workers,” Karim said. 

The 2018 Piazzapulita investigation also prompted a response from some local companies and trade unions. In 2018, Confindustria Bergamo, the local branch of the largest association representing manufacturing and service companies in Italy, signed a memorandum with CGIL, CISL, and UIL, Italy’s main trade unions. Confindustria acted on behalf of the Sebino Gasket Manufacturer Association, an organization launched in 2013 that currently gathers 41 of the largest companies in the industry. 

According to a 2018 press release, the Memorandum had “the threefold goal of supporting the competitiveness of a district that is among the best performing in Italy, protecting the workforce along the entire production chain, and promoting better environmental sustainability.” Cristian Meloni, a local CGIL representative, described the document as “a set of rules and good practices” that mainly relied on a ban on subcontracting—“which is where the companies themselves were losing track of the management of the outsourced gasket deburring and sorting processes.” Companies also pledged to take charge of waste management and disposal. 

Participation in the initiative was voluntary. The first experimental stage involved the district’s five largest companies. All the 40 companies then gathered in the Sebino Gasket Manufacturer Association participated in a survey focusing on their practices in terms of domestic work. While 50 percent of them stated that they didn’t rely on domestic workers, the other half declared they were already applying, at least in part, the rules established in the Memorandum. Since the initiative started, participant companies have regularly monitored their domestic workforce’s conditions, said Meloni. “We also asked companies to have their contractors put their names and symbols on their vans” to help track down their movements, he added. 

But according to local activists, white vans displaying no symbols continue to circulate in the area. Giuseppe Locatelli, the EcoSebino Project activist, described the memorandum as a “cosmetic agreement” devised to “save the industry’s face.” “It only involves the 40 largest companies, many of which have already internalized the deburring process. The heart of the problem is that sea of mediumsized and small factories widespread in the area,” he said. 

“There might be still situations we cannot address,” Meloni acknowledged. The CGIL representative added that in his view, the Memorandum “should be extended to all companies—but we cannot make it mandatory, because the law does not allow us to do so. I cannot stick my nose into your company if you don’t let me.” 

The Sebino Gasket Manufacturer Association did not respond to an interview request. 

Marco Bernasconi, a representative of the local branch of Legambiente, one of the best-known environmental NGOs in Italy, said that one of the main shortcomings of the initiative is the fact that no comprehensive study was conducted to assess whether the problem was effectively fixed. “Behind the representatives of these companies, there are family men and breadwinners. The economy of the area relies on this—if these companies close all these people will be on the street,” he said. 

“We just ask for more transparency—instead of their greenwashing campaigns.” 

For their part, workers ask not to be left alone. “We just want dignity,” Nabila said. “We are human beings too.”


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