On a warm summer afternoon in the Italian city of Bologna, a group of around 15 young people march through the crowded city centre to a high-end pastry shop in Strada Maggiore.
Once there, they don white plastic masks, and a few start plastering the full-length windows and doors with stickers that say “Questo posto ha un padrone di merda” – “This place has a crappy boss” – while an activist with a megaphone reads testimony from an employee who says he hasn’t been paid for months.
As curious passersby stop and watch, the owner confronts the protesters, trying to grab the megaphone and dislodge the masks of some of the protesters. When he calls the police, the group quickly disperses.
The Strada Maggiore protest was one of many held since the Padrone di Merda group was set up in January in Bologna, a wealthy city known for its food and its university. The group targeted 16 businesses over the following months, mostly restaurants and bars.
Renowned for lasagne, tortellini and tagliatelle al ragù (an inauthentic variant of which is known in the English-speaking world as “spaghetti bolognese”, to the annoyance of many Italians, including Bologna’s mayor), the city has a lively and growing dining scene with more than 400 restaurants, pubs and cafes in the central zone – one for every 37 residents.
This combination of education and food has earned Bologna the nickname of “la dotta, la grassa” (the learned, the fat), and means a ready supply of students as cheap and easily exploitable labour. A 2017 government report estimated that the illegal “grey economy” accounted for 72.6% of jobs in the city – a record even in Italy, where undeclared employment is common.
University students are especially vulnerable to illegal, benefits-free employment because they need to pay for their studies and see it as transitional, says Francesco Devincenti of the Filcams trade union. The situation has worsened over the past decade because hard-up parents are giving less and less money to their students, says one of the Padrone di Merda activists, who uses the pseudonym Davide.
The Padrone di Merda movement started after a group of young Bologna residents started to share stories of their work experiences “and saw they were very similar”, says one of the founders, a university student who uses the pseudonym Barbara.
The group’s first action targeted a bar accused of sexual harassment of employees. “[Then] we opened the Facebook page and received many more reports,” Barbara continues. “For example, there was a pizzeria that changed employees every three months and where the owner insisted on being called ‘la signora’ (the lady).”
As well as receiving complaints through the Facebook page, activists spot allegations of bad employers in local newspaper reports or on social media. Before organising any protest, Barbara says they first make inquiries to verify the complaints, partly because they fear owners might use fake accounts to try to unmask their identities.
The group uses its stickers to alert the public that a place is accused of exploiting workers both to discourage customers and because they believe the warning might convince employers to act more fairly in the future. “We put them up in the hope of not having to come back,” says Barbara. “When you are a victim, everyone is supportive but nothing changes. But if you open a Pandora’s box and the owners are afraid of image damage, then things can change.”
Although the activists wear masks at demonstrations and hide their real identities online – fearing that association with the group would threaten their own jobs – the waiter whose complaint sparked the Strada Maggiore cafe protest, Andrea Paci, went public with his real name. In March, Paci wrote on his Facebook page that he hadn’t been paid in four months. “I decided to do it after seeing a sponsored interview with the owner who owed me wages,” he says.
The post was shared by more than 1,700 people and spotted by the group, who organised a protest. Paci believes the actions of Padrone di Merda “highlight a widespread problem” in Bologna, although he declined their invitation to take part in the demonstration, because he was “not convinced of their methods”.
It wasn’t long before the group’s critics responded. Umberto Bosco, a Northern League politician, presented a formal question to the municipal council criticising the group’s methods.
“We have tools to fight injustices, there are plenty of laws [against exploitation] and placing a hidden camera can be a way of documenting injustices,” he says. “But in this case, the group doesn’t provide evidence. They do not deliver social justice but carry out vendettas for those who want to damage the image of their employers, perhaps unjustly.”
This summer a snack bar owner accused by Padrone di Merda of not paying his employees asked the city authorities to block the group’s Facebook page, arguing that he had been slandered by false accusations. Although the case was never brought to court, the authorities pre-emptively asked Facebook to remove the page.
But the public Facebook page remains live. In 2016 the US State Department sent a message to Italian prosecutors dissuading them from asking Facebook to reveal the identities behind anonymous profiles in defamation cases because they would not comply. “The statements written on the social network … however defamatory, are covered by the principle of freedom of opinion,” the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano quoted American authorities as saying.
Padrone di Merda has also set up a new closed Facebook group so its members can coordinate with activists from other cities, including Turin, Pisa and Rome, in the hope of expanding its protests. “We have received many requests from people who want to take similar action in other cities,” says Davide, who adds that the Bologna protests will continue, possibly as early as this month. “We will go ahead, social network or not.”