This paper examines the knowledge work of organizing migrant economic activity--informal, underground and formal--in Naples, Italy. The two dominant approaches to migrant entrepreneurship will be critiqued for their over-determined focus on the individual maximizing his or her needs. That is, both the research that concentrates on the putative cultural resources and co-ethnic social networks available to migrants, or that which emphasizes the individual neo-classical entrepreneurial perspective, with a focus usually on one business or entrepreneur fail to address the sociality I observed in extensive fieldwork in Naples, Italy. This paper examines the migrant search for livelihood by considering the key role knowledge and power play in the capacity of migrants to make a living, to find work and to imagine different futures. That is, this paper examines how migrants not only negotiate their everyday livelihood in the city's economy but also how they imagine new forms of work organization. Naples is well known for its extensive informal economic activity and, recently, migrants have become a key component of this already established underground economy. Recent changes in the legal requirements for permits of stay have added more onerous formal conditions for the renewal of permits, but informal activity continues alongside or within conditions, with knowledge and imagination the key skills migrants employ to organize under these conditions. This paper will attempt to identify and value that informal knowledge.
While discussing Europe's economic difficulties at an European Union Council of Ministers' meeting in June of 2005, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi chastised Italians for their preoccupation with unemployment by suggesting that Italy was better off than its EU partners because 40 per cent of the country's economy was in the economia sommersa--the underground economy--and, thus unaccounted for by statistics generated by Brussels, ISTAT (Istituto Nazionale Statistico) and official sources of economic measurement. Despite the peculiarity of such an impolitic remark from the head of state, Berlusconi's offhand comment reflected a reality even if the proportion he cited exceeded the estimates of the size of the underground economy by Italy's own ISTAT (15%) and the IMF (27%). This underground economy combines forms of irregular, illegal, and informal work with significant under-reporting of earnings and uncollected revenue. The day after Berlusconi's revealing comment, one Pakistani street vendor in Naples, Italy with whom I often talked about Italian politics rolled his eyes in disbelief over this recent outburst and contrasted the Prime Minister's valorization of the off-the-books economy with the recent, more onerous requirements placed on a migrant to renew a permit of stay (permesso di soggiorno) in Italy. He lamented that as a licensed street vendor he now found it necessary to pay an Italian to organize his papers to renew his permesso di soggiorno. He figured it was a necessary extra expense to avoid interminable delays, or worse, rejection. The 2002 'Bossi-Fini' law (no.189) demanded evidence of employment for the renewal or proof of self-employment, such as tax invoices with the 19% value-added tax paid (IVA) for the purchase of products for street vending. A Neapolitan street vendor next to us, overhearing our conversation, joked that under this law migrants were required to produce evidence of two things a Neapolitan probably couldn't--a work contract and a housing contract.
In this paper I draw on fieldwork in Naples, Italy among migrant street vendors to examine the knowledge work of these entrepreneurial migrants as they strive to innovate their work organization and imagine better futures (1). I am particularly interested in migrant workers engaged as street vendors, commerciante ambulante, and to a degree their wholesale suppliers, as I will explain later, because of their visibility in the Neapolitan streetscape. As such, they represent in the popular imagination and the conjectures in the media an immediate and intimate example of those involved in the underground economy. At best, Neapolitans, and Italians in general, describe them as performing undeclared economic activity. At worst, they are presumed to be illegal, undocumented, or permit over-stayers and perceived to engage in transnational criminal activity--either the end product of the 'trafficking' of co-ethnic subservient labour or the end of the supply chain for the importation of counterfeit or inconceivably low-cost goods. Yet, if those are the received meta-narratives held, they are undermined or challenged as soon as they are constituted by the everyday practices of many of the same Neapolitans, who defy easy categorization, prefer to undercut authority and may act in quite generous and warm-hearted ways to those migrants they get to know, who live and work in their neighbourhoods--an alternative Neapolitan stereotype. Certainly, almost all migrants I interviewed noted that an appeal of Naples was the greater openness of Neapolitans towards them as compared to work experiences in northern Italy. Whether generous, hostile or indifferent Neapolitans serve as key sources of knowledge for migrants to interpret.
In the last few decades, Italy has been transformed from an emigration society to immigration one, what some researchers have termed 'the Mediterranean model', which considers the social and economic significance of these coexistent, crosscutting migrant trajectories. This model also suggests that these Mediterranean countries with this dual migration flow have significant informal economies and when immigrants do find positions in the margins of the formal economy, those are very precarious (Pugliese, 2000). As a result the nascent research on the recent population changes in Italy has considered the informal or underground economy as part of any research program (Pugliese, 2002; Grillo and Pratt, 2002; Riccio, 2001, Ambrosini, 2001, Bonafazi, 1998, Colombo, 1998; Zinn, 1994; Calvanese and Pugliese, 1991).
Carrying their goods in jury-rigged baby strollers or shopping carts, neatly packed and wound with rope, street vendors in Naples set up their crude but effective cardboard or cloth display tables on sidewalk space along the city's main shopping streets--Via Toledo and Corso Umberto--to display jewelry, fabrics, bags, baseball caps, inexpensive battery-operated toys, cellular phone accessories or sunglasses, etc. If only briefly to stem the negative discourse that pervades official and …