Rome - They are called the "precari", or
precarious ones - Italians in their twenties and thirties armed with ambition
and often excellent academic degrees who have spent their entire working lives
in poorly paid temporary jobs.
They are the rule, not the exception, in a country where
young people are hardly ever given regular work but instead move from one
six-month or one-year contract to another.
In some ways they are lucky to have work at all. Only one
Italian in five under the age of 25 has a job, along with Greece, the lowest
youth employment rate in the eurozone. Italy's overall employment rate, at 57%,
is the second lowest in the area after tiny Malta.
When Luca Di Bonaventura graduated in political science from
Florence University in 2001 he had high hopes of a career in journalism.
Now, after a decade of six-month contracts with major
Italian news agencies, earning between €600 and €1 500 per month, he has
applied for jobs as a traffic warden and bank teller.
"I'd be a doorman in a hotel. I would take any job
tomorrow if it offered me a regular contract with sick pay, holiday pay,
anything that gave me the chance to plan my life."
Simona Allegretti is 37, has a degree in Italian literature
and works in a school for hairdressers after years of temporary jobs as a
teacher and working in a call centre. She earns €15 an hour and has no contract
or employment protection.
She abandoned her quest for a teaching career in Italy's
state system after years of occasional work as a poorly paid substitute. Less
than 1% of regular teachers are under 35, and these are virtually unheard of in
New Prime Minister Mario Monti has pledged that labour
reform will be a top priority of his new technocrat government, brought in
earlier this month to battle a debt emergency that threatens the whole of the
Not always like this
It wasn't always like this. Until the mid-1990s temporary
jobs were a rarity in Italy, and in any case carried similar levels of benefits
as regular work.
When new types of temporary contracts and agency work were
introduced they were widely hailed as a vital injection of flexibility in an
ossified system. Now there is a consensus, even among economists and at Italy's
central bank, that things have gone too far.
Nine out of 10 first jobs are now taken under a temporary
contract, whether the worker is an unskilled labourer or a graduate. Starting
salaries, in real terms, are at the same level as in the 1980s.
The system is failing because companies take advantage of
the much lower labour costs associated with these contracts by renewing them as
often as is allowed and then simply substituting the temporary worker with a
So temporary work that was supposed to be a stepping stone
to a stable job is leading nowhere. Workers either return to unemployment or
struggle for years with unstable work. "Precari a vita", or
precarious for life, has become a common term.
Moreover, unlike in many European countries, most unemployed
Italians cannot rely on government benefits or access to programmes to help
them find a job.
"Without the prospect of even gradual stabilisation of
temporary employment the quality of human capital is weakened, with long-term
negative effects on productivity and profitability," former Bank of Italy
governor Mario Draghi, now head of the European Central Bank, said in a recent
The other side of the story
Abuse of the temporary contract is only half the story,
One reason why firms are so reluctant to hire workers on
regular contracts is because once they have done so, it is almost impossible to
"We have to get away from a dual labour market where
some are too protected while others are totally without protection or insurance
in the case of unemployment," Monti said in his maiden speech to
These "too protected" workers populate the public
sector and companies with more than 15 employees. Here workers benefit from
rigid rules offering strong guarantees and, especially in the public sector, a
job for life.
Workers in firms of more than 15 employees are protected by
article 18 of a labour statute drawn up in the 1970s.
It states that a worker can only be dismissed for gross
misconduct, and unless this is proved he must be reinstated with payment of
full salary for the period of lost employment, as well as legal costs while the
case was being judged.
The fact that it only applies to companies above 15
employees was originally to protect trade unionists from arbitrary dismissal,
but it has created a major disincentive for small companies to grow, damaging
Italy's industrial structure.
While firms have great difficulty shedding single workers,
they can close an entire branch of production if they can show that the company
needs to restructure due to economic crisis.
"Paradoxically, in Italy it is far easier to fire 10
workers than to fire one," said labour expert Piero Ichino.
Monti will not get union support for any easing of firing
restrictions unless he also introduces a comprehensive system of jobless
benefits, something he told parliament was sorely needed but which will be hard
to finance in current circumstances.
Even if the new prime minister can hammer out a consensus on
hiring and firing, his task of reforming the labour market will be far from
over. Debate is already raging over another contentious issue: collective
Car maker Fiat, Italy's largest private industrial group,
has led the way by ignoring industry-wide national agreements and striking
deals at the plant level to set tougher rules on working hours, sick pay and
Ichino said Fiat's example, which is being followed by other
large groups, "marks a turning point in Italy's system of industrial
The move towards contracts that take more account of company
and regional differences is opposed by many on the left and has split the
country's trade unions, but Monti made it clear that he sees it as the way
"We intend to continue to move the focus of collective
agreements to the company level, as the European institutions ask, and as the
social partners have already begun to do," he said.
Chiara Di Lorenzo, 31, from Naples, is hoping the reforms
will give her a better chance of finding a job worthy of her masters degree in
international cooperation and development.
She is still looking for stable employment after a chain of
part-time, temporary and sometimes unpaid jobs working with refugees,
non-profit organisations and Rome University.
She helped set up a Facebook group called "Network
Precario", whose 900 members try to help each other in the search for
"real" work. But morale is low.
"There are hardly any funds for cooperation and
development in Italy, so there isn't much hope unless you know someone who
counts," she says.