Immigration Politics & Marginalized Workers: West African Street Merchants in Bologna
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Since the 1980s, Italy has rapidly shifted from a country of emigration to a host country of international immigrant communities. Today, immigrants make up 8.1% of the Italian population (Osservatorio Regionale 2014: 4). Italy’s historical development of immigration laws have greatly shaped the work opportunities that they can acquire as well as how they are perceived in Italian society. These political processes have also molded how immigrant participation in the Italian labor market is racialized and genderized. While studying abroad in Bologna, Italy during the academic year of 2013-2014, I was frequently confronted by West African street merchants selling items such as artisanal products from their country of origin, tissues, lighters, and socks. Some had a vending license while others did not. Their ability to get a license was dependent on their legal status. Supported by the Global Research Fellowship of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives and the Mount Holyoke UAF LYNK funding, I developed an independent research project that explored how immigration politics shape the men’s opportunities for finding, creating and maintaining forms of employment. This project analyzes the fieldwork I conducted within the city center of Bologna from May to August 2014. I had informal conversations and facilitated interviews with fourteen undocumented street peddlers in the city, six irregular and eight regularized workers. Three of the men were from Nigeria and the other eleven were from Senegal. I pose the following questions: why do the men engage in petty vending? What effects do immigration policies have on their ability to obtain employment in Italy? What kinds of obstacles do they confront and how do they overcome them? Common themes arose about their socio-economic and legal obstacles in Italian society, as well as discrimination that they face from police, state employees, and local politicians. I argue that regardless of the men’s legal status, regular or irregular, they are negatively impacted by Italian immigration policies as they hinder their opportunities to find and maintain employment, thus pushing them to work in the informal economy. I use social theorist Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and biopolitics to analyze how contemporary Italian immigration policies marginalize, segregate and racialize immigrant communities, particularly African individuals. In the first chapter, I provide a brief historiography of Italian immigration politics until 2009, and how these laws have shaped immigrant participation in the Italian labor market and the political economy of the Emilia-Romagna. Chapter Two demonstrates how Italian immigration laws trap the irregular merchants into a vicious cycle of poverty. In the final chapter, I discuss how the combination of flaws within immigration policies and discrimination embedded within local bureaucratic practices restrict regularized merchants to do documented work, thus forcing them into the underground economy. At the end, I have also included two interview transcriptions with participants in Italian and a photo gallery.