Museums closed due to coronavirus, the risk is to scuttle not only tourism, but also cultural precarious workers

Coronavirus emergency, cultural workers at economic risk: effects are likely to affect mostly precarious workers.

It is not just damage to tourism, as many have already reported, due to the coronavirus emergency that has resulted in a series of museum and activity closures throughout most of northern Italy. The damage could affect cultural workers themselves, especially precarious workers, on whom the burden of the closures is likely to fall. About 130 public museums are closed, and they are normally visited by about 500,000 people between the last weeks of February and March: missed visits, as is obvious, mean lost revenue for the state, for companies that run museums and services, and for privately run museums.

The workers who are likely to bear the brunt of the closures are tour guides, museum workers, educational service managers, and many others. Many of them have precarious contracts, many others have no contract at all, most of them earn little (it has been calculated that in Italy 8 out of 10 cultural workers earn less than 15 thousand euros a year), with wages very often less than 8 euros per hour. Many others work on call on a VAT or withholding tax basis, and these are the workers who suffer losses in the immediate term: the same goes for those who are paid by the hour with, and this is a situation that affects many major tourist centers such as Milan, Turin, Bologna, Ravenna, Trieste, Mantua, Parma, Modena, Bergamo, Padua, and Brescia. Then there are the outsourced workers, such as those at the Civic Museums of Venice.

None of the culture workers obviously deny the emergency and the necessity of the measures taken, but institutions are asked that those who spread culture not be left behind. “We know that there are so many of us in the same situation, from bars to the hotel industry,” explains Alice Battistella, activist of the movement Mi Riconosci? I am a cultural heritage professional, who is experiencing the closure of the Venetian Civic Museums on her own skin. “The emergency,” Battistella argues, “threatens to overwhelm the entire tourism sector in the weeks and months to come. We are the weakest in the chain, self-employed workers forced to operate with VAT or withholding tax, or with more than precarious contracts. For us, losing 500, 1,000 euros often means not having money for rent and bills: a situation that is already serious but potentially dramatic if the emergency of continues. We have been excluded from the most mundane social safety nets for decades, and now the urgency of reforming our situation comes into full force. We call on the government to do all it can to help us. The choice has been made to block our sector, we willingly sacrifice ourselves for the emergency, but we cannot, in order to save ourselves from one emergency, explode another: that of precarious work in the cultural heritage sector, that of poor workers who become even poorer overnight.”

Losses for those who work between culture and tourism as well, as Chiara Delmiglio, a tour guide from Milan, explains, according to whom the ordinance to close regional museums and suspend school trips was a hard blow, but even worse was “the realization that something has changed for us this first half of the year.” Indeed, Delmiglio explains, "I, as well as many of my colleagues, work 70 percent with schools of all levels: I work there both as a member of the in-house teaching teams of some museums and as a freelancer for planning school field trips with related classroom workshops. To give you an idea of the severity of my loss this week alone (Feb. 24 to March 1), I had to cancel: two full days (one with a school and the other with a group of adults), three educational visits to museums in Milan, two outdoor trails, and a thematic visit for new mothers in Monza. I fully agree to follow all the points of the ordinance to the letter, however, what worries me is the aftermath-what will happen? Despite the fact that it is written in black and white that school field trips must be cancelled until March 15, I have already received 4 cancellations for field trips with primary and secondary school classes in March and April. Evidently, it seems that principals can decide whether to extend the restriction and thus cancel all educational outings that were planned. Perhaps not everyone realizes that behind a simple school trip lies an enormous amount of work: planning, making inspections, making innovative teaching aids, purchasing any materials for workshops.“ What one hopes, Delmiglio concludes, is that ”trade associations can do something; because the real damage is not in the immediate but in the long term. April and May are the busiest months for us and will be a disaster as a result of unwarranted mass hysteria. Milan will rise again as it always has ... but tourism (specifically school tourism) will take longer to restart. And we tour operators are left alone as always."

In Turin, Flavio Utzeri, archaeologist and Mi Riconosci activist, the situation is not too different. “These days,” he told us, “I have collected numerous testimonies from colleagues and friends here in Turin, and I can assure you that the lowest common denominator is fear. Fear of losing a lot of money, and of being completely ignored even by the government’s eventual measures to address the economic damage related to the measures. Many of us workers are not framed with contracts, we are precarious, we work piecework, paid by the hour (which the law calls ’withholding tax,’ or ’VAT number’). Just imagine what it means, for example, for those who work in the educational projects of the Polo del 900, who earn almost exclusively from schools to have their activities with children cancelled like this, overnight, and to have no compensation or protection. Then add in the fact that wages are normally low, and that in the summer they work for a few hours and nothing more... or for tour guides, who get to lose several hundred euros for this week alone, and who risk ’the domino effect’ for the coming months. We cannot understand what is the reason why we have to stop and not the stores, for example, everyone is wondering. Are we so useless in the eyes of those who govern and administer? Is contagion really so much easier in museums than in shopping malls? I am thinking especially of those museums (the majority) that do a few hundred visitors a day, if not dozens. Here we seem to be the only ones asking the question. Certainly, however, from a society that considers us to be easily interchangeable with volunteerism perhaps we could not expect more.”

Negative effects in Friuli-Venezia Giulia as well, as Mario Andrea Francavilla, a paleontologist, nature guide, tour leader and communication expert active in Trieste, explains. “In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, an area very much linked to the tourist flows of Venice and the new European Capital of Culture Rijeka, as in all of Italy, the blockade has had devastating effects for cultural tourism workers. Closed museums, activities, guided tours, and school trips suspended mean a total blockade and rolling cancellations that for a professional, in this season, mean more than 1,000 euros a week up in smoke, but not only for the Italian market, because this has also put Tour Operators and professionals working on incoming from abroad in crisis. If for a guide, however, it means losing money, for the outsourced staff of museums, libraries, etc., it means losing their jobs. This is tantamount to losing jobs, considering also the starvation wages and ultra precarious contracts associated with it. Skip Carnivals and skip classes at the university as well. It is not remotely possible for us to quantify the amount of damage yet, but it is enough to take into account how the blockade affects people from Australia to Canada to imagine figures running into tens of millions of euros.”

The appeal that cultural workers make to the government is to immediately enact extraordinary measures for self-employed or precarious workers affected by the closure of cultural institutions. “It’s not just businesses and large institutions,” they repeat: those at the bottom are most at risk.

Pictured: closed gates at the Miramare Castle in Trieste.

Museums closed due to coronavirus, the risk is to scuttle not only tourism, but also cultural precarious workers
Museums closed due to coronavirus, the risk is to scuttle not only tourism, but also cultural precarious workers

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