Italian students have been on the streets in anger after an 18-year-old student, Lorenzo Parelli, was crushed to death by a steel girder of 150 kg while working in an internship for a private company in the province of Udine, in Northern Italy. The same night as his death on Friday January 21, students in Italy’s capital Rome, organized an action in front of the Ministry of Education, University and Research. One of their banners read “your school kills”.
The following day, January 22, students organized protest actions in cities across Italy in front of the offices of Confindustria, the General Confederation of the Italian Industry. On the afternoon of Sunday January 23, the third consecutive day of protests, police attacked the students in Rome and wounded two.
The pandemic at school
For Italian students, the injustice of 18-year-old Lorenzo Parelli’s workplace death connected to the broader feelings of frustration and anger felt by youth. In the last two years of the pandemic, high-school students have been the “forgotten subjects” of Italian politics.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the government quickly decided to make all learning remote. During the time of uncertainty and increased risk of contagion, this decision was welcomed by students. However, distance learning soon became an obstacle for students.
In 2020, it was estimated that 13.1% of young people did not finish school and left early. As of now, there is no new data to show how the second year of the pandemic impacted early school leaving. However, according to research from the National Institution for the Evaluation of the Educational System, the number of students who made it to graduation but acquired only a part of the expected skills in high school, increased from 7% in 2019 to 9.5% in 2021.
Additionally, two years since the beginning of the pandemic, the Italian government has yet to adapt school infrastructure to the new conditions. The classes are still overcrowded and ventilation systems have not been renewed. Public and school transport have also not been upgraded and the state still does not have a proposal to bridge the technology gap among students.
Laura, a university student and political activist of CAU (Collettivo Autorganizato Universitario) from Naples, a youth organization linked to the political party Potere al Popolo explained: “Distance learning revealed itself as a drastic measure against working class students hiding deeper problems of the capitalist school system.”
Internships or exploitation?
In this context, social discontent among high-school students increased rapidly. From October to December 2021, students occupied over 50 schools in Rome. The reasons for the occupations were multiple. In some schools, students criticized building problems, lack of teachers or sanitary problems (in some cases rats were found in toilets). In other schools, students denounced the lack of laboratories, teaching instruments and classrooms. But the occupations were also an expression of a general dissatisfaction with the government’s political choices and the management of the Next Generation EU funds earmarked for schools.
Of course, the current situation is not the result of the pandemic. In Italy, the transformation of the school system from an institution where young generations acquire general knowledge and culture to a place where they increase their employability and human capital has seen an acceleration in the last two decades.
A school reform of 2015 implemented a mandatory internship. Laura explained, “This reform came under different reviews, but the general ideological role of the reform remained constant: to increase their work experience and, in this way, increase the probability to find a job after graduation. High-school students need to spend a minimum amount of education hours (from 200 to 400 a year) working, without salary, in private companies.”
Seven years after the implementation of this system, nothing has changed for students and young workers. At the end of 2021, the unemployment rate of those aged under 25 increased to almost 30%, double compared to other EU-27 countries. Different forms of precarity such as irregular work, low wages, violence, and harassment at the workplace affect one out of two workers under 35.
Laura who is also a political organizer with the high school students organization SAC (Studenti Autorganizzati Campani) explained, “A large majority of students are experiencing precarious conditions in their internships. Students do not learn anything about workplace safety and they tell us about 6 hours of repetitive tasks or arduous activities. At the end of the day, the internship requirement is simply exploitation and unpaid work.”
In view of those developments, Lorenzo Parelli’s death cannot be simply defined as a tragic accident. The state forces students to do unpaid work in an unsafe labor market where every day four to five people die in working accidents. The spontaneous indignation of the students are promising an awakening of a larger protest movement against work precarity and exploitation. Unions would do well to join their mobilizations.
Students organizations all over Italy will be back on the streets on Friday, January 28, 2022.
Maurizio Coppola is a member of the Italian left movement Potere al Popolo.