"Listen well to the words, but you have to listen carefully," says the girl with long black hair, asking me to pay attention to the lyrics of one of her favorite songs, which I've never heard before. Cristina Covelli is 21 years old, still with teenage features and plastic glasses, round and black, resting on her face, which give her a serious look. She hasn't studied or worked since she graduated three years ago from the technical chemical institute in her hometown of Crotone, Calabria, in the very south of Italy. For the girl, the future is the lump in her throat that she feels every time she calculates — and she often does so — how much it would cost her to enrol in university or emigrate to a northern city.
For this reason, it seems to her that the words of a song written by one of her peers, a finalist of the last edition of Sanremo (Music Festival), adequately represent her mood. "And I don't want you to ever see my eyes now / While I'm writing I have anger that coincides with how much I'm losing / But I swear to you that I've always aimed at excellence / If I must have little, I choose to have nothing", says Niccolò Moriconi, aka Ultimo, when he pronounces, almost recites the words of Sabbia, the favourite song of the girl from Crotone. She would like to open a pastry shop or become a nurse, but is faced with the material impossibility of doing either or at least trying. For Cristina Covelli having a job is not a right, but a desire or even a dream. Having a fixed paycheck would not be an achievement of autonomy with respect to her family of origin, but "a way to help the family reach the end of the month".
Statistically speaking, Cristina Covelli is a neet, an acronym of the English formula "Not in education, employment or training", a category that defines people between 15 and 34 years old who do not study or work. Italy is the European country with the most neet (28.9 percent), while the region of Calabria, together with Sicily, holds the record for the highest rate in this category. In the southern region, 36.2 percent of young people in that age group areneet, practically one in three. In Crotone, there is an even more alarming figure: 33 per cent of the neet do not even have a middle school certificate, which indicates not only a structural lack of work, but also a high school dropout rate.
The first-born of three female daughters, Cristina Covelli lives in her parents' rented house, an apartment of a 100 square meters in the Tufolo district of Crotone, one of the largest and most densely populated in the city, also known as Crotone 2. The Covelli family pays €430 rent for a three-room apartment in a building in the residential area. No one in the family works: Cristina's father worked for the local water company, then the company went bankrupt and he lost his job. Five years ago, he had a heart attack that made it even harder for him to find a new job. The mother has been a housewife her whole life. The whole family lives from the father's "citizens’ income".
With such a low ISEE ("Indicatore della Situazione Economica Equivalente", Equivalent Economic Situation Indicator),even the simplest projects become a dream that is shattered once you start planning your expenses. The girl from Crotone knows the costs of each of her projects very well and thinks through all the possibilities for the future that she has evaluated over the last three years, weighing every detail. Going to university, attending a professional course, moving to another city to look for work: Cristina spends her days creating projects and estimating how much they could cost her. It's like moving bulky furniture in a space that is too small, hoping to find a way to get it in.
Cristina Covelli could not enroll in the Faculty of Nursing Sciences at the University of Catanzaro, because she does not have the money to take the entrance exam: "€250 in fees, plus €50 for enrolling. With the risk of losing all of it if you fail in the end". Instead, to enrol in a training course for a dustman would take €2,500 of tuition in eight months. Money she doesn't have. So she keeps sending CVs in the hope of being accepted for work, even if she has less and less motivation to get in front of the computer to look.
"I sent curriculum vitae everywhere," the girl says. "The only one who answered me was a company in Milan that offered me a job for €800 a month, but that money would only be enough to pay the rent, since I couldn't stay with friends or relatives". She is willing to do any job, but for now she spends her days at home, helping her mother with household chores and her younger sisters with homework. Then she goes out with her friends, who are in the same situation . The only company in town that gives work to girls like her is a call centre: Abramo Customer Care.
Many graduates end up working as receptionists, for salaries that sometimes do not exceed €300 per month. But the city doesn't offer much else: "Imagine that we don't even have a mayor, we are under control of acommissariati(temporary external administration of a city by the state),and for Christmas they didn't even want to set up the traditional lights. The mayor of the city, Ugo Pugliese, in fact, was suspended from his post together with some councillors in November 2019 after having been implicated in an investigation into the public contracts concerning the municipal swimming pool. Previous mayors had also been involved in investigations and scandals. Cristina Covelli no longer believes that things can change and she still does not know whether she will vote in the regional elections on January 26, which see the center-right candidate Jole Santelli leading in the polls. The Democratic Party's candidate, Pippo Callipo, the 5-star Movement's candidate Francesco Aiello and the former head of the Calabrian civil protection, Carlo Tansi, who is running as an independent, are all opposed to him.
To support Santelli's candidacy, the leader of the League Matteo Salvini made a stop in Crotone, where he inaugurated the first provincial chapter of the League in the city. Considered a stronghold of the centre-left, once called the "Stalingrad of the South", it’s the most industrialized and working class city in the region. "For the first time since the post-war period until today there will be the League in the Calabria Region", said Salvini during his rally in a theater in Crotone, on January 10.
"The governor will be called Jole and the League will be the first party in Calabria," continued the leader of the League. The secretary of the Democratic Party Nicola Zingaretti also arrived in Calabria during the same days to support the candidature of the industrialist Pippo Callipo, but he held rallies in Lamezia Terme and Catanzaro. While in Crotone, Giuseppe Provenzano, current Minister for the South and Territorial Cohesion of the Democratic Party, promised to include areas such as Crotone in his Plan for the South.
"If young people leave the South it's not just because of the lack of work. That is very often the case in the rest of the country as well. They leave because they don't see what the future of these territories will be like ten or twenty years from now," said Provenzano during his visit. But the unemployed and the neetseem to no longer believe in promises, and the regional elections could leave the ballot boxes empty.
"In Crotone there is an alarming number of neetsin addition to the long-term unemployed," said Tonino Russo, head of CISL in Calabria. "Having lost the industrial model of heavy factories of the 70s and not finding a new space for other types of economy, we have seen a serious increase in unemployment since the late 90s," continues the trade unionist, who also speaks of disappointing interventions on the part of national politics, which continues to use social welfare instruments.
"In Calabria there have not been many requests for ‘citizens’ income’ for various reasons. It is a purely social welfare measure, which does not favour job creation. In any case, many people have resigned from work to access ‘citizens’ income’, because wages in the region are very low, two-thirds lower than the national average".
For Filippo Sestito, president of ARCI di Crotone, the responsibility for this situation lies above all with a ruling class that has not been able to manage the crisis produced by the closure of the city's factories: "We were one of the richest areas of Calabria, but after the closure of the factories, the local political class squandered and misdirected public funds due to the lack of an overall vision of the development of the territory". In the province of Crotone there are eleven clubs of the ARCI, with thousands of members.
"After Taranto, this area, which has had a heavy chemical industry for years, had to deal with an environmental disaster that still needs to be cleaned up," says Sestito. The president of the local ARCI argues that in order to relaunch effective labour policies we should try to focus on a number of sectors, from tourism to agro-industry, and above all overcome the infrastructural isolation of the area.
"If we had dignity we would really have to hand back our electoral ballots, and not go to vote", says Paolo Aiello, 49 years old and unemployed for six years, when I meet him in front of the Job Centre in Crotone, not far from the former industrial area with its abandoned factories, reinforced concrete skeletons and chimneys of one of the most polluted sites in Italy, which was once the industrial pole of Calabria. Aiello came to ask for information about the possibility of attending a course or an internship, but they told him that he must make an appointment and come back. He is wearing a blue overall when I meet him in front of the yellowish building that houses the Job Centre. "I keep dressing like this even though I haven't worked for six years," he confesses. "It's also a way to motivate me to leave home."
He worked at Pertusola, the oldest metallurgical factory in the city and one of the most important of Italy, founded in the 1920s for the production of zinc and active until the end of the 1990s. His father, who died of cancer, also worked in that same factory, which then closed down like all the metallurgical factories in the city, leaving a territory devastated by toxic waste and pollution. "I started working when I was 14, while I was working I got diplomas to become a skilled worker, for all of us working in the factory was a destiny".
Then the factory fired everyone, Aiello went on to work as an electrician for Digitec, another company that closed six years ago. "I even went to work outside Crotone for a month, a bit everywhere in Italy, setting up the electrical systems in the motorway tunnels", he says, while trying to shelter from the penetrating cold of a freezing January day. Then that experience ended too, and since then Aiello has only had little precarious, black market jobs.
Antonio, 28 years old, on the seafront of Crotone, January 2020. After his last work experience in Hamburg, Germany, he returned to Crotone and will enrol in the Faculty of Languages. "They didn't even give me the ‘citizens’ income’ this year, because I live with my mother who receives my father's survivor's pension, and we live on her seven hundred euros a month". In Crotone many unemployed people live on their parents' pensions. "Only those who have a state job or are recommended survive", which makes me understand that to recommend oneself means above all to join the gangs that control the territory. For Aiello, the biggest regret is that he didn't even try to start a family: "Without a job you can't get married, love isn't enough. Here every day you divorce someone, because if you have nothing to take home to your children, it can't work. Love is not enough to keep families together".
Aiello tried for a short time to move to Veneto, where his sister lives, but then he was forced to return to Crotone. In 1958, the Calabrian writer Corrado Alvaro explained that "escape is the theme of Calabrian life, and such an escape is made by the Calabrese even if he is sitting in a place, in an office or behind the counter. It is rare to see someone who is really where he is. Physically or fantastically, Calabria is on the run from itself". I think of these words and the concept of "wandering" explained by the Calabrian anthropologist Vito Teti in his book "Terra inquieta" when I listen to the story of Paolo Aiello's continuous attempts to find a job, but also when I meet Antonio Scicchitano — 28, a returning emigrant, unemployed, neet. Scicchitano has curly hair and a sad look, after a bad emigration experience in Germany, he came home with more worries than before.
In Calabria in the last year, ten thousand people have left, of these four thousand were young people like him who, after graduating and after looking for work for three years in his city, decided to go and work in Hamburg, Germany. He turned to an intermediation agency for job search, the “Dr. Sauber Gmbh”, but found himself with a salary of one thousand euros in a city where the cost of living is very high. "Through a German language school I found this employment agency, I paid 300 euros to attend a German course that would give me the opportunity to go and work in Germany", he explains.
"There are many recruitment agencies that take advantage of the difficult condition of many young people who are ready to emigrate," says Scicchitano who found a job as a porter in a very large hospital in Hamburg. "I also worked nine hours a day, but I earned a thousand euros a month. A pittance in a city where life costs a lot. The salary wasn't what they promised me and the city wasn't what I imagined either. We left Crotone with ten of us, but after a year we all came back", continues theyoung manwho, speaking with his father in the last few days, decided to enrol at the university of Cosenza, after the extremely negative experience in Germany.
"The work was a lot, but it didn't allow me to survive. I felt like a slave, I lost ten kilos in a year", he says. "Coming home to my family when I was thirty makes me sick. I feel like I'm in a cage", he continues. But for now it is the only possible choice in a situation where even emigrating can turn into a nightmare.
Annalisa Camilli is a journalist at Internazionale, covering migration in Italy and Greece.
Photo: Revol Web, Flickr