The Piazza Primavera in Pomigliano d”Arco. The air is heavy, it’s 40 degrees Celsius, a storm is coming. The bells have long rung noon. A pair of young Italians is hurrying across the square with some documents. “It’s the polacchizzati. They’ve allowed themselves to be polackised, now they have to slog away,” explains Gianluca Pagano, 39, former Fiat worker.

The “polackisation” of Italian workers or even the spreading of the “slavery” that Polish workers had earlier been forced into has been the main subject of union rallies, pub arguments, and Sunday sermons in Pomigliano d”Arco and a dozen other small towns around the Vesuvius. “First it’s Tychy, Poland, and then, unfortunately, China. Exploitation. All this will eventually come here. But first it will destroy us,” complains Mr Pagano, sipping his coffee.

It was a blackmail, not a referendum

In a June referendum, Fiat gave workers in Pomigliano a simple choice: either it invests 700 million EUR in the factory in return for their pledge to work harder, or despite the political pressure from Rome it will not move the production of the new Panda from Tychy to Pomigliano. In the second option, nearly 5,500 Fiat workers and 10,000 workers at local suppliers would face redundancy. And it needs to be remembered that the Fiat plant has for decades been the sole source of income for half of Pomigliano. “It was a blackmail, not a referendum. They put the gun to our head!” says Father Paolo Farinella. Faced with the prospect of unemployment and threatened with stories about Polish workers willing to work on Saturdays and Sundays, some 63 percent of Fiat workers voted in favour of the shake-up.

It’s siesta time at a bar at Viale Alfa Romeo, a dozen or so workers are having their break. “We voted yes because our hands had been tied,” they claim. They have agreed to work three shifts (instead of the former two) until Sunday morning (instead of a workweek ending on Friday), and they have also okayed the manager’s right to demand extra hours in the case of large orders, stricter control of sick leave, shorter lunch breaks, and restrictions on the right to strike.

I ask whether Pomigliano can catch up with Tychy, Fiat’s most productive plant in Europe. “They say we’re lazy. But perhaps it’s you, Poles, who are a bit crazy? Don’t you ever ask why you have to be slogging away like this?” replies Raffaele, supporter of the FIOM union which urged workers to vote no. Raffaele’s wife explains that she had agreed to marry and have three children with a man who returned home from work every night rather than on Sunday morning. There are three-shift factories in Italy but that’s not what her husband had agreed to, he didn’t go to work in the factory like his father and grandfather to have this. “He agreed to lower pay in exchange for more life. Yes, the less we work, the happier we are. Is this abnormal?” asks Agnese, 36.

Didn't managers and capitalists watch the World Cup?

The disease of hard work and fast life has been spreading from the north to the south for a long time now. “Things are getting worse,” “the world is falling apart,” many people say in Pomigliano. Agnese points at two small shops under her balcony at Via Ercole Cantone. Despite the siesta, they are both open. “Four hours before the siesta and four hours after: that’s how it’s always been. That”s how we”ve built our rich country, isn’t it? And now? The eight-hour workday is no longer good enough? How many hours do these girls do a day? Who eats dinner with their children?” Agnese points at the busy shop assistants.

They don’t deny in Pomigliano that someone from outside south of Italy may find work conditions at “their” factory weird. Didn’t the managers install a large plasma screen in the assembly hall during the recent football world cup so that the workers could watch the Italian team play without losing their daily rate? “That’s true. But didn’t administration workers, managers and capitalists watch the World Cup as well?” reply the workers. Is it true that one in four of the workers went on sick leave on the second day of the parliamentary election in 2008 to attend union rallies in Pomigliano and Naples or to have a rest at home? “Well, okay, we went a bit too far then,” admit the patrons at the Viale Alfa Romeo bar, nodding their heads slowly as befits siesta time.

Pomigliano model could erase workers' rights

The “Pomigliano model” – as the Italian media call the forcing of workers to accept tougher work contracts lest production be moved elsewhere – has been more and more controversial. Especially that Fiat has just announced that it wants to manufacture a new minivan in Serbia, a communiqué that may have been just a prelude to another negotiation of worker contracts.

The Osservatore Romano, Vatican”s official daily, has been firmly opposed to the delocalisation of industrial production. Ezio Mauro, chief editor of the most popular paper, La Repubblica, warns that the “Pomigliano model” can effectively erase workers' rights secured by the unions in Western Europe in the 1970s. “Watch out because soon you”ll too be replaced by the cheaper Asians in your Poland or Serbia,” prophesies Gianluca Pagano. Tomorrow he will be at Piazza Primavera again to enjoy his not yet polackised life.