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A chapter of our shared history: from servants to domestic workers in Italy

Understand domestic labour in Italy through the history of one of their oldest organisations, ACLI Colf.

Toscana. Mathias Liebing/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Discussing domestic labour in Italy is like writing our country’s history following the Second World War. So I thought it was important to not only relate the conditions of domestic workers in Italy today, but to also pick up the thread of a history that stretches further back in time. I asked Pina to write these lines together with me. Who is Pina? Let’s go back to 1956, when a barely 13-year-old Pina left Arsiè – a mountain village in Belluno province – to go and work in Bologna, the big city. I asked Pina why she went to work in Bologna when she was so young, and she told me:


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‘In Arsiè, there was little work and not many prospects for having a family. A couple of vacationing Bolognese insisted on “taking me into service”, and my dad and mum agreed. I was young, but for me, like for so many other girls my age, there were not many alternatives. I left with the lady and gentleman from Bologna – with whom I would stay for over ten years – to “go into service”, as they used to say, or to “be a house servant”.

It was difficult and I did not like being far away from my family. I was little, but proud to be able to help my loved ones, and also curious about getting to know the world, learn new things, and have new experiences. The choice to move to the city allowed me to work, but also to learn about and join one of the few associations that were concerned with workers’ rights, and particularly domestic workers’ rights, at the time. Already at 20 years old, I knew the ACLI (Christian Association of Italian Workers) and the ACLI Colf (the part that was concerned with women domestic workers). The ACLI Colf were initially called GAD or ACLI Groups for Domestic Workers and only became the ACLI Colf in 1964. The word Colf [collaboratrice familiare] owes its origins to the ACLI’.

I then ask Pina what it was like to be a part of the association at that time, to which she replied:

‘I first became an activist and then a leader for this category of workers. I signed up to the ACLI Colf occupational register, and after being an activist, I took on the role of national secretary of the ACLI Colf between 1971 and 1976. After that, I went back to Bagnaria Arsia to be with my husband Gino and my two daughters. But I still continued my engagement with the association, and was again elected as a national representative between 2005 and 2009.

I lived through a process of cultural and legislative change concerning domestic work in Italy that occurred during the last 60 years, starting, with the regulatory framework of the 1950s, which evidently contained many gaps, if not proper violations of women domestic workers’ rights. For example, it stated that working women could sleep for eight hours, and thus implicitly provided the possibility of them working as much as 16 hours a day. Through the engagement of many women, activists, and domestic workers who began to fight for their rights, awareness around the topic gradually increased, and greater protections were achieved’.

Today, the regulatory framework for domestic work in Italy still contains gaps. I asked Pina what she recalls as being important milestones for domestic workers rights:

‘Over the years, there were various achievements and recognitions for domestic workers’ rights, but some crucial moments include 1958, the year in which the first law systematically addressing domestic labour was passed, and 1974, where the first national domestic labour contract was signed. This law and contract are still in force, and constituted fundamental conquests for domestic workers rights, thanks in part to the ACLI Colf’s engagement. But in addition to the gradual acquisition of rights, there were also changes from a cultural perspective: as the years passed – and particular starting in the 1960s-70s – it was no longer only aristocratic families who were offering jobs to domestic workers, but also new bourgeois families of the middle class. As this new figure of the domestic worker emerged, her role began to change.

In the past, domestic workers were often at the mercy of the padroni [bosses or ‘masters’] and the word serva [servant] or la donna [the woman] were used in a derogatory way, which not only portrays the lack of rights for these women, but also their perceived inferiority. This issue was debated a lot in the ACLI Colf, as a way to change people’s perception of domestic work in Italy. In 1961, the association’s fourth National Assembly debated the theme ‘Domestic labour: family collaboration’, which resulted in the birth of the term ‘collaboratrice familiare’, a term which is widespread today. This marked a cultural change in society to recognise and appreciate domestic work and to involve these working women in social life, instead of isolating them.

For us, it was important that domestic labour be equal to other occupations, that the laws protecting this work be improved, and that a new and uninhibited professional figure be created. It was important that the colf have the same rights as other workers, but also that she be equipped to do her work and that she be able to understand her role in the family. Knowing how to do the work as a colf or badante [carer/care assistant] is not be enough; she must also be spiritually prepared in order to understand how to relate to the family she works for.

Here, spirituality does not apply to the religious sense, but to the capacity to relate, to respect, and to command respect within the workplace, without suffering abuses or feeling humiliated. To help these workers, the national college was founded between 1957 and 1963 in Cevo. A small literature of pamphlets on the topic also flourished. Thanks to the discussions on the social value of domestic work and the role of women workers, the serva, the donna, became the collaboratrice familiare, the colf’.

In recent years, domestic labour has extended to include personal assistance roles. It is, after all, at the crossroads of important socio-economic phenomena: increased life expectancy; the ageing population; cuts to social healthcare programmes and welfare services; the economic and unemployment crisis; the increasing number of women employed in the non-domestic labour sector; wars and other processes determining migration, to name a few.

Since the great 2002 amnesty for foreigners working without a regular contract, Italy has realised that it is a country of new immigrants, with a new occupational sector whose workforce was mostly comprised of women or foreigners: the number of workers in the domestic sector rose from a few hundred thousand to around two million, according to estimates considering both regular and irregular workers. 

In 2002, I decided to dedicate myself to the concrete problems faced by people migrating to Italy. Thanks to the ACLI, I began working on issues pertaining to the rights of foreigners arriving in Italy. Fifteen years later, I can still recall how difficult it was for people to obtain residency permits. I still recall the sleepless nights, the queues at the drop-in advice stations, many working women and men’s fear of being deported, of losing work… as well as difficulties they experienced like blackmail from the employers who in turn exploited them; humiliation; the suffering of families and above all, for the children they left in their homelands; and even their worries about the debts they owed. Sadly, many people still live and suffer from these conditions.

Today, according to the official INPS (National Social Security Institute) figures there are around 860,000 workers in the domestic work sector, of which 88% are women (780,000), and 76% are of foreign origin. Sixty percent work as colfs, while 40% engage in family assistance for elderly persons – a profession commonly termed as badante. We are also seeing an increase in the number of Italian domestic workers, both women and men. This can be linked to the economic crisis and the need for people to find alternative work after losing their job or people – mostly women – to begin working because other family members lost their jobs.

I asked Pina how she experiences these changes today, in light of her personal history and her history in the association:

‘From my youth I experienced activism as a woman worker, as well as the association’s passion for achieving common objectives. Over time, I shared my enthusiasm for participating in the association with many other activists, and still remain by their side. Today it is different though. Not worse, but different. In the past we fought as Italian women domestic workers, and the movement was very strong. Today, it is difficult to mobilise women workers to participate, even though there are still battles to be fought.

Like yesterday, we are mostly women – both Italians and foreign women – and volunteers who are sensitive to the problems, (both old and new) of a sector facing many challenges, important ones being indifference and the lack of visibility. Domestic work always seems to be relegated to the margins of the world of work, and this is made worse by the current economic crisis. Sadly, in our country it is difficult to give dignity to this work, as it is with other jobs considered “modest”, perhaps because we do not know how to recognise the intrinsic value of work and to give respect to every profession’.

Speaking with Pina, I think of all the women, the leaders of the ACLI Colf who preceded me, and the important women in my life who have worked and continue to work as colf and bandanti; modestly, tenaciously, and simply courageously, while addressing everyday tasks with care, attention, and dignity. This ‘everyday’ character of domestic work is not abstract, but rather extremely concrete.

It is the house perfumed with lovingly-made tomato sauce. It is the cleanliness that speaks to the care given to these spaces. It is the patience when listening to an elderly person who incessantly repeats the same thing, but who is testament to our roots.

People who wash, clean, feed, migrate, pray, and dream, people who want a dignified job to improve their family’s as well as their own lives. From 1945 until today, the ACLI Colf have pursued their commitment to defend domestic workers. This is a part of our history that does not appear in textbooks. Yet it is the history of all of us.

About the authors

Pina Brustolin moved from a small town to the city of Bologna at the age of 13 to work with a family as a colf (family collaborator), or ‘at service’ as they said at the time. At the age of 20 she met the ACLI, and since then she has been an activist and an organiser for domestic workers, in different roles, including as a national secretary of ACLI Colf between 1971-1976.

Raffaella Maioni lives between Padova and Rome, she is an organiser and a researcher. As a student, she worked extensively as a baby sitter. After her studies in politics and intercultural studies, she got involved with ACLI services for migrants and for domestic workers, and then took on various leadership roles in ACLI Colf. She is currently national secretary.


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