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Italy’s job deaths scandal

One near Belluno, north of Venice. Another in Pavia, south-east of Milan. A third near Bergamo, north-east of Milan.

One day. Three deaths. Two badly hurt in hospital. Almost zero surprise.

Why? They were simply further additions to an already grim toll – that of the alarming number of workers killed on the job in Italy.

Italy has the EU’s worst rate of job-site fatalities – some 918 last year, according to researchers at respected Italian think-tank Censis and far outstripping the country’s murder rate.

That is equivalent at five every two days – some 35 per cent higher than the next worst nation Germany, with 678. Italians liken the scandal to a plague and call the casualties “white deaths”.

Tuesday’s tragedies involved a man, 37, killed on a building site near Belluno. In Pavia, Cesare Bertelli, 21, died in a gravel quarry accident. The third fatality, Sergio Riva, 20, was crushed by a one-ton steel pipe in Dalmine near Bergamo.

The two other construction workers left fighting for life were one who tumbled into a cement mixer near Rimini and a second who plunged from a Brescia rooftop.

Despite last year’s shocking toll, things appear to be getting even worse in 2008, with the first seven months of the year seeing 632 job-related deaths.

They include five men who inhaled toxic fumes at a Puglia factory in March and six killed in similar circumstances at a Sicily plant three months later.

To place the statistics in context, independent researchers Eurispes say there were more fatalities at Italian work sites between 2003 and 2006 than there were among coalition troops in Iraq.

Critics point to Italy’s lack of a health and safety culture, while what little legislation that exists is poorly enforced.

However, a more fundamental problem is the country’s vast black economy, which frequently employs illegal immigrants willing to toil for poorer wages and in riskier conditions. They are twice as likely as the average Italian employee to die at work, Eurispes reported last year.

Workers in agriculture, construction, industry and transport suffer the majority of the accidents, and these are concentrated in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy in Italy’s industrial north.

Last year the then-Under-Secretary for Work, Antonio Montagnino, commented: “The level of workplace deaths is intolerable. But wherever there is illegality, workers’ rights are not respected. We are fighting the black market. It is a battle for safety at work.”

However, campaigners fear that with a new right-wing government, elected in April 2008, has come a less sympathetic attitude.

When this summer Censis published its report covering 2007, Roberto Castelli, the new Under-Secretary for Transport and Infrastructure, claimed many of the tragedies took place not at industrial sites but while workers commuted to jobs. The figures, he alleged, were “wrong and manipulated for insurance purposes by workers’ families”.

Mr Castelli went on: “It’s time we had the truth. These deaths have nothing to do with safety in the workplace. It’s time to stop calling Italian bosses and industrialists criminals.”

Opposition senator Achille Passoni of the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) – a former trade unionist –raged: “Castelli should be ashamed and should apologise to all those who have lost a relative at work.”

But Mr Castelli’s outburst shows the size of the battle facing unions and health and safety campaigners if they are to change Italy’s culture and stop the rising number of workplace tragedies.

Franco Bettoni, president of Anmil – the National Association for the Injured at Work – said: "We believe more than ever that we need a firm response to break that pattern so far followed.

“It is time to take rapid decisions that show that our objective of zero workplace accidents is a real priority for the government. ‘White deaths’ are not a political issue of left or right.”