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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. 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.
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. 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. 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.