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Fighting for your knife: law, religion and parmesan in multicultural Italy


On May 15 2017, the Italian Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal, issued a verdict ruling that Sikh men in Italy cannot carry the kirpan, the sacred dagger that represents one of the five holy customs Sikhs must observe.

The appeal had been lodged by Jatinder Singh, a 32-year old Indian living and working in Goito, in the northern Italian province of Mantova. Singh – part of a Sikh community which is essential to Italy’s Parmesan industry –- was ordered to pay €2,000 when local police stopped him and confiscated his kirpan because of a law that prohibits the carrying of knives and weapons outside one’s house without a legitimate reason.

But in their verdict, the judges did not just act on the basis of Italy’s legal system. Crucially, they also ventured into unchartered terrain by commenting on how Italian society should look and what its culture and values should be – something that must be a matter of political debate, not decided in strictly legal terms.

Today, more than 60,000 Sikhs live in Italy, the second-largest community in Europe after the UK. They are mainly concentrated in Italy’s northern provinces, where the hot humid climate and flat rural landscape resemble Punjab, the Indian region which most of the Sikhs come from.

Farmers in India, these Sikhs also become farmers in Italy and are employed particularly in one of the country’s most famous cheese-making industries: Parmesan. Once the produce of a solely Italian labour force, the industry now relies on immigrant workers, like many other European countries. In 2015, the BBC reported local producers saying that if it were not for the hardworking Sikhs rising at 4am to milk cows twice a day, seven days a week, Italy’s Parmesan production would be at risk.

The verdict of the Court of Cassation shocked the Sikh community, which regards itself as peaceful and well integrated in Italy. So it’s not surprising that they are now contemplating various responses, from an appeal to the European Court of Justice to the most drastic one of all: leaving the country.

Ceremonial swords and kirpan dagger are part of Sikh religious observance. The kirpan must be worn at all times. Shutterstock

Since the decision of the Court of Cassation, Sikh men in Italy now live in constant fear of being stopped and searched by the Italian police due to religious observance. So it is important to critically scrutinise the cultural reasons given by the judges in justifying their verdict.

Common core

Over the past few decades, as observed by political sociologist Christian Joppke, courts of justice in various European countries and the USA have been instrumental in expanding immigrants’ rights with their verdicts, often against the restrictive measures put in place by national governments in relation to welfare programmes, civil service employment, professional licenses and scholarships.

Italy’s supreme court decision signals an important reversal of this trend. But it is not just a legal matter. And Italy is not the first country to forbid the wearing of the kirpan in Europe – Denmark already did so in 2006. The most interesting aspect of the Italian verdict is the cultural justification the judges used to support their legal decision.

Shining a light on their arguments, the Court of Cassation starts with a fair appraisal of what at first sight might appear as the kind of statement that should characterise any culturally diverse society:

In a multi-ethnic society, the living together among subjects of different ethnicities necessarily requires the identification of a common core recognised by both the majority society and the immigrants.

Integration is a two-way process, which means the majority and minority communities experience a transformation and work together towards the shaping of the society of which they are all part.

Western values

But this was not exactly what the judges of the Court of Cassation had in mind. For them, integration struggles with an “insurmountable limit” in the “respect of human rights and of the legal framework of the hosting society”. In other words, immigrants must change and assimilate, Italy will not bend to accommodate all cultural or religious observances of immigrants.

Italy has its own law, which judges believe cannot be brought into question regardless of the demographic and cultural changes Italy has been experiencing for the past 30 years. So they maintain that “it is essential for the immigrant to conform his values to those of the Western world into which he has freely decided to incorporate himself”.

Without SIkh dairy workers, Italy’s Parmesan industry would be at risk. Shutterstock

Besides the gender-bias tone, this carries two problematic points. First, there is no general agreement on what “Western values” are (and the very notion of West/Western is also open to debate, particularly in relation to its colonial legacy). Should a forward-looking society not list cultural and religious pluralism among these values?

Yet, the Italian Court of Cassation seems to instil doubt here. In another passage of their verdict, the judges talk of “the uniqueness of the cultural and legal fabric of our country”. Not much notion of cultural pluralism in that statement. Italy has a unique culture – and anyone who arrives on its shores simply has to fit into the Italian way of life.

New Italians

But here comes the zinger: what shall we make of all those Sikh Italians who did not migrate to Italy, but were born and grew up there? Unlike their parents, these people, clearly, did not “freely decided to incorporate” themselves into the country. They are not immigrants, but “new Italians”, as my research has largely documented. Unfortunately, by putting all the “diverse” people into the same basket, the Court of Cassation seems blind to the country’s changing population.

It is interesting to note that the court’s verdict has generated little political debate, including among the centre-left parties such as the Partito Democratico – traditionally more sensitive to immigrant issues. This seems to suggest that these parties in Italy, like elsewhere in Europe, share a form of immigrant incorporation which scholars call “civic integration”, that is, integration demanded on the basis of legal principles, but which in reality stands for the defence of the existing culture of the majority of Italians.

If it were not so serious, perhaps we could joke that losing Italy’s most famous cheese to a quarrel over a knife is really not worth it.

The Conversation

Marco Antonsich receives funding from European Commission - FP7 People.

Optimising nutrition in a bid to break the two-hour marathon mark

Twenty-six seconds. That’s how close Kenyan runner Eluid Kipchoge came to breaking the two-hour marathon and bettering a mark many thought to be unachievable. Although this was the fastest time ever run over the 26.2 mile distance, it unfortunately did not count as a world record. In the event, organised by Nike in Monza, Italy, the revolving use of pace setters taking turns to reduce wind resistance and drinks handed to the athletes by attendants on bicycles meant that the time would not be recognised by the IAAF, the athletics governing body. Despite this, the significance of Kipchoge’s time should not be underestimated.

Just as the four-minute mile was a target for elite athletes in the 1950s, the excitement surrounding a sub-two-hour marathon has been building recently as the world record has been slowly chipped away. It currently stands at 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, but Nike believed that, by controlling as many factors as possible, the elite runners selected for their race could break the two-hour barrier.

How did Kipchoge get so close? He is obviously an extraordinary athlete who optimised as many factors as possible to get the best performance including training, environment, equipment, pacing and nutrition.

For a marathon runner, nutrition plays a vital role and that means taking on carbohydrate to provide additional fuel to that already stored in the muscles and liver. There is a limit though.

The most carbohydrate that can be used by anyone is thought to be around 90g per hour as long as different types of carbohydrate are used in the drink – for example, the sugars maltodextrin and fructose. This limit also depends on the carbohydrate being emptied from the stomach into the intestines and from the intestines into the blood at a fast enough rate without causing gastrointestinal discomfort.

Gut discomfort is quite common in runners. Beate Pfeiffer of the University of Birmingham investigated carbohydrate intake in marathon runners and found that 4% had serious gastrointestinal issues – but this was only after consuming an average of 35g per hour. Higher amounts of carbohydrate and fluid will probably cause more problems. When they investigated other endurance events, high carbohydrate intake was related to increased nausea and flatulence, but it was also related to improved performance during Ironman races – the longest form of a triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycle and 26.2 mile run).

A good carbohydrate strategy depends on a fine balance between the total amount of carbohydrate and the amount of fluid consumed without causing any discomfort. Most commercially available sports drinks have a 6% carbohydrate concentration, which means that each litre contains 60g of carbohydrate. If runners only aimed for 60g of carbohydrate per hour they’d have to drink two litres of fluid over the duration of the race. That’s a lot of fluid at high speeds.

If runners aim for 60g of carbohydrate per hour they need to drink two litres of fluid over the duration of a marathon. KieferPix/Shutterstock

During a marathon, drink stations are every 5km (about every 14 to 15 minutes). In order to get the optimal amount of carbohydrate, runners would have to drink about 200-300ml at each drink station – a big challenge when you are running at 13.1 miles per hour.

Kipchoge and his team at Nike switched a few things up to optimise nutrition. He reportedly drank a 14% carbohydrate drink to reduce the total volume of liquid he had to consume. Nike also set the drink stations up so that the three runners, hand picked to break the two-hour mark, could drink on every 2.4km lap. This way, they could take much smaller drinks and prevent a build-up of fluids in the stomach.

This needs practice though – as concentrated drinks can be slow to empty from the stomach, particularly during high-intensity exercise. There is no way Kipchoge could have consumed a 14% carbohydrate drink without having practised and experimented in training. In other words, he trained his gut by building tolerance to large amounts of fluid and highly concentrated drinks, so that more is emptied from the stomach into the intestines.

Training the gut

In a 2010 paper, Greg Cox of the Australian Institute of Sport demonstrated that, after 28 days of high-carbohydrate feeding during cycling exercise, the amount of carbohydrate used increased. For marathon runners, more carbohydrate use means more fuel and energy.

How much did nutrition help in the Nike event and did training the gut make the difference? There is no definitive proof but we might see something by looking towards one of the other Nike athletes, Zersenay Tadesse. He has been notoriously bad at getting his nutrition right in marathons. The world record holder for the half marathon, he has struggled when doubling the distance – but managed to beat his personal best for the marathon by four minutes in the Nike event, reducing his time from two hours ten minutes to two hours six minutes. Maybe, just maybe, with the help of the scientists, he trained his gut to optimise nutritional intake and provide the platform for a personal best.

We may never fully know the role nutrition plays in long-distance running, but what we do know is that when someone does break the two-hour barrier, nutrition and a trained gut will probably be at the heart of it.

The Conversation

Stephen Mears does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Labour and the Conservatives offer two different routes to a 'living' wage

A competition among political parties to promise a more attractive minimum or “living” wage is new to British elections. The National Minimum Wage (NMW) is now nearly 20 years old, but Labour in power was always cautious about its level. The Conservatives, meanwhile, initially opposed it.

But a burgeoning living wage movement and a perceived “living standards crisis” help explain a new bidding war. In the 2015 election, Labour promised to raise the NMW to £8 an hour by 2020; trumped by the Conservatives’ £9 in the subsequent budget, and now Labour’s £10 manifesto pledge.

Since the minimum wage was £6.50 just two years ago, all these promises, if followed through, will have a substantial impact in changing Britain’s low pay culture. But what is the difference between the two main party promises now on offer? And as policies, are they sustainable or reckless?

The most obvious difference in the manifesto pledges is that Labour promises £10 by 2020 (a 33% increase from 2017) and the Conservatives promise 60% of median pay which is projected to be £8.75 by 2020. This is a 17% increase, and less than the £9 pledged in 2015, because median pay is forecast to grow more slowly than previously expected.

But two crucial factors beyond the crude rate promised will influence how the “living wage” debate plays out in the next few years: the basis for setting and raising it, and the ages of workers to whom it applies.

How it’s set

In setting the rate, the Conservatives have opted to peg the National Living Wage (NLW – a rebranded NMW for over-25s) to average pay. On the one hand, this belies its branding as a “living” wage. Unlike the voluntary, accredited Living Wage which is derived from our research at Loughborough University and based on what people actually need for a minimum living standard, the Conservatives’ NLW has no reference to living costs.

But the commitment to raise the minimum from 52% to 60% of median pay – and to keep it there – does mark a bold departure in sharing the fruits of future growth. Indeed, pegging incomes (such as pensions or benefits) to rising earnings has often been a more favourable formula than pegging them to living costs, since earnings rose steadily in real terms.

However, times have changed. In the past few years, living costs have sometimes risen faster than earnings, making an earnings link less beneficial than it once was. Moreover, the “real” living wage espoused by Labour can also rise if the government cuts the help it gives working families, for example through tax credits. This is what George Osborne did when announcing the Conservative Party’s NLW in its 2015 budget, which would have caused families a net loss. So a real living wage requires employers to make good on any cuts in state support.

But what will be the effect of much higher minimum wages on employment? In my new book with Laura Valadez on the living wage, I show that evidence from the UK and US overwhelmingly contradicts the economic prediction that higher minimum wages automatically mean fewer jobs. Yet we also point out that both countries have been highly cautious in setting the minimum wage, and are about to become much less so – New York and California are planning phased increases to US$15, over twice the federal minimum. In the UK, a statutory minimum of £9 or £10 will have a vastly different impact on labour markets from the voluntary adoption of a real living wage by the 3,000 employers who have so far felt able to do so.

Whether it’s tied to age

The most radical aspect of the Labour version, and potentially the most risky in terms of employment, is that it would apply from age 18, unlike the Conservatives’ from age 25. Someone who is 20, who in 2017 can be paid £5.60 per hour, would be guaranteed £10 three years later – if they were still being offered jobs.

Our book shows how in Portugal, ending minimum wage youth rates was followed by a substantial “displacement” effect, with fewer jobs going to less experienced workers. This effect is also predicted in the UK. On the other hand, under Conservative plans, a growing gap between the minimum for 24- and 25-year-olds could damage job prospects for the latter, as employers in casual industries such as restaurants and hospitality dump low-paid workers on their 25th birthdays. (Early evidence shows some employers already favouring younger workers.)

In adopting greater ambitions for tackling low pay in Britain, therefore, politicians should not throw all their former caution to the winds, but look carefully at how their policies are affecting the labour market as they unfold.

Producing a formula that can contribute to higher living standards without destroying people’s job prospects requires a delicate balance. After the election, the simplicity of the manifesto promise will have to be followed by careful, evidence-based delivery if a living wage is to be sustainable.

The Conversation

Donald Hirsch is a member of the Labour Party.

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