Economic crisis sees Italian self-employed turning to suicide


ROME LETTER: In the last six weeks 10 people who ran their own businesses have taken their own lives in places as far apart as Venice and Sicily

‘SWEETHEART, I’M sitting here crying my eyes out. I got up a bit early this morning, I wanted to say bye bye to you, but you were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to wake you. Today will be a horrible day. I ask you all to forgive me.’

Two weeks ago, small-time self-employed builder Giuseppe C did indeed get up early. He climbed into his battered old Fiat Punto and drove 12km from the little village of Ozzano dell’Emilia to the central tax collection office in nearby Bologna.

Having parked his car in front of the office, he got out and left three little notes, of which the above is one, side by side on the tarmac close to the car. Along with the notes, he left his wallet containing all his identity documents. Everything in order or, as it turned out, nothing in order at all. Giuseppe then got back into his car, packed with petrol, lit a cigarette lighter and tried to burn himself to death. Within seconds his car was ablaze, sending a huge column of smoke up into the Bologna morning air. A Romanian worker and two traffic policemen on their way to direct the morning school traffic rush saw the smoke and came to Giuseppe’s rescue, managing to pull him out of the blazing vehicle, alive but horrendously burned. One week after the incident, Giuseppe died in Parma General Hospital.

In his other notes, 58-year-old Giuseppe had given some idea of the motivation for his extreme gesture when he said he had “always paid” his taxes, “not a lot, but always”.

It seems a bill for €105,000 of allegedly unpaid tax had been the item which finally proved too much for him. Last Wednesday morning, he had been summoned for a “technical hearing” at the tax office in relation to his problems.

Unfortunately, Giuseppe’s desperate gesture is not an isolated one. In the last six weeks, 10 people, all of whom ran their own businesses, have taken their own lives in places as far apart as Catania in Sicily and Venice in the north. It might have been the 51-year-old wife of a builder with €400,000 of work not paid for near Vicenza, or a 27-year-old forestry worker in Arezzo, but the result is horrifically similar.

There was a time when economists and analysts would chant the “small is beautiful” mantra with regard to the self-employed – a very successful section of the Italian economy.

But the increased suicide rate – in the industrial northeast alone there has been a 40 per cent rise in the number of suicides – would suggest this may no longer be true.

Prime minister Mario Monti has deservedly earned himself much kudos for the manner in which he has stabilised the ailing Italian economy in the wake of decades of less than fiscally rigorous management.

However, the initial positive impact Monti had, essentially on international market opinion, does not mean the end of recessionary times in Italy.

Speaking at an Ecofin meeting last weekend, Bank of Italy governor Ignazio Visco was merely the most recent authoritative Italian figure to acknowledge 2012 will be a “year of recession for Italy”, with no upturn likely to come until next year. The Italian economy sank 0.7 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to national statistics agency ISTAT.

Furthermore, a contraction of as much as -1.5 per cent has been predicted for this year by the Bank Of Italy in a context of 30 per cent youth unemployment and 9.2 per cent overall unemployment.

In the meantime, things remain difficult for the “small is beautiful” section of the Italian economy.

A first problem, clearly, is obtaining credit, given that bank loans to small- and medium-sized business fell by 2.4 per cent in the second half of 2011.

A more shameful, indeed often fatal, consideration for many small businesses is the matter of payment from the Italian state itself – for many firms, a major or indeed the major client.

Confartigianato, the independent artisans’ confederation representing more than 700,000 firms, claims that payment from government entities is on average five months late.

Even a prestigious captain of industry such as Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne, just about the unions’ least favourite man around here at the moment, was forced to acknowledge the other day during a seminar at Milan’s Bocconi university that these “dramatic gestures” (the suicides) have involved “workers, artisans and employers”, adding: “[The deaths] reflect an unsustainable situation, one of human suffering brought about by the world of work . . . a world that is being steadily eroded by the crisis . . .”

It would seem that, in Italy at least, we should ready ourselves for more of what poor Giuseppe called “horrible days”.