Beach vendors in Italy have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen a massive drop in tourism and the poor state of the economy has exacerbated xenophobia.
By Maria Stöhr and Claudia Corrent (photos) in Cavallino-Treporti, Italy
On the beach, it is said, everybody is equal. Except that some people are enjoying their free time, while others are fighting for survival.
Soda boarded the train from Bassano di Grappa to Jesolo at 7:30 a.m. on this day, before taking the bus to Treporti. Now, at shortly after 10 a.m., she is leaning against a fence next to the sand dunes. Perhaps it will be a good day. The forecast calls for 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit) and sunny skies with scattered clouds.
Soda, who is 19, has wrapped a yellow scarf around her hair and is wearing latex gloves and a mask. She holds out a laminated catalog of braided hairstyles with worn edges.
The beach at Ca’ Savio in northern Italy is Soda’s workplace. She’s a beach vendor on the peninsula that separates the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea, a place full of hotels and campsites, one after the other, extending down the 12 kilometers of sandy beach. Even the place names sound as though they were invented for tourists: Cavallino, Ca’ Ballarin, Ca’ Pasquali, Ca’ Savio.
When you climb the lighthouse right at the end of the peninsula at Punta Sabbioni, essentially the gateway to Venice, you can see where the tidal flood protection system is being built to safeguard the lagoon.
For Soda, the 12 kilometers of beach are her source of income from May to September. Children have her braid their hair or weave in a colorful ribbon while some women turn to her for extensions. Normally. But not much has been normal about this summer and fall. Indeed, there are only a few umbrellas stuck into the sand. “Look at the beach,” Soda says. “It’s totally empty.”
She has been back on the beach plying her trade since mid-June, when Italy loosened its lockdown, hotels reopened their doors and a few tourists returned to the beach. But, asks Soda, who wants to get close enough to a complete stranger in the middle of a pandemic to get their hair done?
Soda lives together with her parents and siblings, she says, a total of eight people. She has been in Italy for a little over a year and heard early on from another Eritrean woman that you can earn decent money on the beach. She went along for the first time at the end of last season and says that she can earn up to 100 euros on a good day. These days, though, it is closer to 20 euros – hardly enough to make it worthwhile.
Vendors are an integral part of a beach vacation on the Italian riviera. Tourists buy a souvenir towel for their cat-sitter, a friendship bracelet for themselves or have their hair braided.
But coronavirus has been hard on beach vendors in Italy, as it has been for pretty much the entire migrant population in the country. They frequently have irregular employment and now, with the economic crisis settling in, they also have to be concerned about rising xenophobia in Italy. According to the NGO Arci, many of the beach touts are people who have been in Italy for some time already and are in possession of residency documents, while others are unemployed people who try to make a bit of extra money a few months out of the year. But there are also a number of migrants who are new to Italy and who are trying to avoid the authorities because they think it is unlikely that they will be granted asylum.
Italians refer to the beach vendors as “vu cumprà,” which means: “You want to buy?” It is a rather insidious appellation, one which highlights the power relations between those whose survival depends on soliciting business and those who can determine their fate with a “no.”
The beaches are the workplaces of those people that Italian right-wing populist Matteo Salvini means when he speaks of refugees posing a danger – that an increase in refugees translates to a reduction in security. Two years ago, back when he was still interior minister, Salvini pushed through a legal order that significantly tightened Italian policy on migration. The Salvini Decree makes it easier for Italian government agencies to deport migrants and much more difficult for ships carrying migrants to call at Italian ports.
Salvini also came up with a program called Spiagge Sicure, which means “safe beaches.” It allows coastal towns to apply for state funding to boost efforts aimed at eliminating beach vendors. The primary aim is to stop the trade in counterfeit goods. This summer, the program was funded with 4.8 million euros, and 150 communities have received money from the pot.
Beach vendors in Italy do not have registered businesses and they don’t pay taxes, making their earnings illegal. According to a study conducted by the Italian association Anva Confesercenti, Italy lost out on an estimated 967 million euros in tax revenues in 2017 from the illegal public sale of goods. Since the regulations enacted by Salvini went into force, this number has likely dropped.
“Last year, the police came to the beach. Normally, I see them coming and have time to clear out. But that time, I reacted too late. They took away my throw blankets,” Junes says. He is a man who looks up into the sky when he laughs, making his cap fall off. And he looks up to the sky a lot. “I asked the police: Would you rather I be selling drugs?”
Junes is a 27-year-old from Casablanca in Morocco, a place where, as he says, the coastline is long and the water clear. He has been living on his own in Padua for the last eight years, though he flies back home once every two years. During the summer, he sells those fringed, batik-style throws you frequently see on Italian beaches. The rest of the year, he works in a foodstuff factory. Until this March. “When corona came,” Junes says, “they laid off all temporary workers.” He declined to say what kind of residence permit he possesses.
When Junes is working on the beach, he carries his throws over his shoulder, always unfolding one of them – his favorite – with his hands. He then lets it catch the wind like a sail, almost as though it is pulling him along. He wears a supporting sleeve on his knee; he does a lot of walking.
He says he has given up his room in Padua, adding that even commuting to the beach has become too expensive this year, given what he is now earning by selling the beach throws. While he used to earn as much as 150 euros per day, he now makes just 20 euros a day. He has taken to sleeping in a car behind the dunes.
Junes says that when the police confiscated his throws, they essentially took away a month’s worth of earnings. “It was at least 25 of them,” he says. “I have to buy them myself first with my own money.” And where does he buy them? “Tough question,” he says, looking up to the sky.
There has been no shortage of indications that the mafia also has its hand in the beach vendor game – that different mafia groups have divided up control of the beaches and force vendors to pay them a share of their earnings. It is also possible that the vendors buy their wares directly from the mafia
There is also another question that beach vendors seem wary of answering: the one about their residency status. Soda says that she is living in Italy with her family and there are “no problems” with her being here. Others prefer to say nothing at all. Junes simply repeats himself: “Tough question.” People from Eritrea currently have pretty good chances of receiving asylum in Italy. Moroccans, on the other hand, do not.
The beach is the place where those who are listed in the statistics as migrants meet up with those who say in the surveys that they are afraid of foreigners. In recent years, Italian politicians have stoked the flames of hate against refugees – a mood that has taken root among Italians in these times of a weak economy and high unemployment.
In early August, a man from Senegal was attacked on the beach in the Tuscany town of Castiglione. Someone called him a racial epithet and punched him in the face, telling him he shouldn’t be there. Later in the month, a Black youth in Palermo was beaten so badly he ended up in the hospital. It is believed the attack was racially motivated. Beach vendor Soda says that she has been asked on more than one occasion what she is doing there. Junes says the people sometimes spit at his feet.
Because of the pandemic, EU has forecast an 11.2 percent plunge in Italy’s GDP this year, which would be a record drop in Europe. Salvini, meanwhile, is waiting for the opportunity to make a comeback – for more power and for the fall of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
On a recent afternoon, during the hottest hours of the afternoon, Soda has sat down in the shade offered by the lifeguard’s chair. Next to her is another woman from Eritrea, who is also carrying a catalog of hairstyles. The women are territorial about their section of beach, the area where they are allowed to offer their services. They say there is a certain division among nationalities as well, with people from India and Bangladesh selling jewelry, anklets and sunglasses, while men from Eritrea, Kenia and Ethiopia sell hand towels. The women do braids. The beach throws like those on offer from Junes are the province of the Moroccans.
Soon, the season will come to an end. The two women are sitting in the sand and our conversation once again comes back to racism. “You know what?” Soda says. “I know the tourists. I can tell the good ones from the bad ones. And I only approach the good ones.”