The double face of Eataly: they eat, we work

The story of Eataly begins in 2007 with the opening of the first store in Turin (Italy), which was interestingly enough built on an old factory site.

This new project of ‘artisan food production at reasonable prices’, led by Oscar Farinetti, the former CEO and President of the Italian colossus of electronics retailers UniEuro, has very quickly extended its tentacles over the national territory – opening up other emporiums in Rome, Bari, Florence, Milan, etc. – and globally, bringing on board of Eataly’s venture cities like New York, Chicago, Istanbul, Dubai.

But behind, or better, within this story of ambitious entrepreneurship hides another story: that of the workers of Eataly. This story has less to do with the astounding enterprises of busy CEOs flying around the globe gifting toy models of cathedrals’ pinnacles1, but much more to do with precarious employment, chaotic rhythms of work and no guarantee of renewed contracts. Or perhaps, it is better to say that the story of the workers at Eataly has a lot to do with the company’s thriving business, as the latter would not be possible without the former. Justifying it’s extended use of subcontracting and short-term contracts way beyond the limits set by law with the logic and needs of the ‘Startup’ (a newly created company in a phase of development), Eataly’s management offers one-month long contracts to the labor force, claiming that greater flexibility is necessary to keep the boat above water. After all, as it is declared on the website of Eataly New York, “we’re in this together.” This is a puzzling statement given that Eataly’s annual turnover amounts to 400 million Euros - a magnitude that their workers cannot even picture in their wildest dreams.

The Eataly store in Florence, which opened its doors in December 2013, is no exception to what’s been described above. The venture – praised by the then mayor of Florence and current Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi – began by hiring 131 workers through temp agencies (following the same hiring structure employed in the other stores in the country). These workers were offered one-month contracts with no guarantee of renewal, frenetic working days, and weekly schedules disclosed less than 24 hours in advance and which constantly change. This generalized precariousness followed a strategy of fragmentation of the working force into a myriad of different contracts - perhaps Eataly’s reaction to what had become a great source of unity among workers who were feeling they were experiencing similar conditions of exploitation.

Thus, it became clear to the workers in Florence that what appeared to be chaotic management of employees due to the recent opening of Eataly was actually a precise and pondered choice of managing the working force in an utterly asymmetrical way: inflexibility in what is demanded from the workers is mirrored by a great deal of flexibility when it comes to respecting their rights.

What followed was a strike organized for the 30th and 31st of August in 2014, organized by some of the workers whose contracts had not been renewed for the following month. Unsurprisingly, given the extremely vulnerable nature of contracts and the ease with which management can retaliate against particularly active workers, only those whose employment was already threatened were the only ones who dared to call for a strike.

It is widely known that service workers in the US face the same conditions of instability and exploitation in the workplace. The recent struggles of the fast-food workers under the umbrella campaign ‘Fight for 15’ (FFF) have brought the meager conditions of service workers in the US to the public arena. The double-faced story of Eataly described above demonstrates that the company offers no alternative to this model of exploitation, but rather fits right into it. Despite the company’s ‘slow food’ approach, which makes of terms such as ‘responsibility’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘sharing’ - key terms and guidelines for business - Eataly’s case shows how working conditions in its fancy stores are not very different than those experienced in the ugly kitchen of some fast-food chains2.

For these reasons we think your struggle is the same as our struggle. American workers have more in common with Italian workers than with their American bosses! We stand in solidarity, across a great ocean, against all who treat our lives as cheap and disposable. An injury to one is an injury to all. The victory of some is the victory of all.

2 We found the same narrative of sustainability and sharing hiding a system of exploitation in the IKEA warehouses in Italy, where workers have started to organize. You can read more on this here: International mobilization against IKEA to reinstate 24 fired workers in Piacenza (Italy)


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