Grieving widows of struggling Italian businessmen who killed themselves in the face of a deep recession took to the streets of Bologna on Friday, offering a poignant reminder of the pain that austerity can cause.
Waving white flags and joined by dozens of supporters, the small group of women -- dubbed “white widows” by Italian media -- marched from the city’s hospital where craftsman Giuseppe Campaniello, 58, died late in March after he torched himself in his car in front of the local tax court.
Suicides among small-scale businessmen crippled by a combination of unpaid invoices, a credit squeeze and a rising tax burden have become an unwelcome consequence of economic crisis across parts of southern Europe.
Friday’s procession was led by Campaniello’s unemployed wife Tiziana, who has accused the state of being deaf to the needs of small businesses. Dressed in black, she and another black-clad woman held a white banner carrying his picture.
“Giuseppe was a man dedicated to his family. He set himself on fire fully aware of what he was doing, and he didn't do it here randomly,” she said when the group reached the spot where he set himself on fire after his appeal against a demand for thousands of euros in allegedly unpaid taxes got rejected.
“We are asking for answers. The government should protect the citizens,” she added, wiping away tears after laying flowers on the charred pavement. “We say no to the same deaths in Greece.”
That country’s previously low suicide rate has surged since it was gripped by a brutal recession that is now in its fifth year.
In Italy, media put the number of deaths linked to the crisis at more than 70, while Veneto-based small business association CGIA-Mestre says 32 businessmen have killed themselves since the beginning of the year.
One third of suicides have occurred in the heavy-industrialized northern region, where they rose 16 percent in 2010, according to national statistics office ISTAT.
The figures paint a stark contrast with the luxury lifestyle of the country’s political elite now being put under the microscope by a raft of corruption cases.
Unions and business groups say Italy’s austerity measures, including tax hikes, spending cuts and a rise in the retirement age are weighing disproportionately on the less well off.
“The banks are not lending us any money,” said Orazio Marchesini, the owner of a small construction firm who joined the protest.
“I had to mortgage my house in order to save my company. A year ago I had 13 people working for me, now there are only three left.”