Fri, Dec 02, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Young Italian job seekers victimized by broken labor market

The new technocratic government wants to reform a system that makes it easier to fire 10 people than to fire one person, while also keeping unions happy

By Gavin Jones  /  Reuters, ROME

They are called the precari, or “precarious ones” — Italians in their 20s and 30s 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 percent, 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 euros and 1,500 euros (US$810 and US$2,024) 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,” he said.

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 center. She earns 15 euros 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 percent of regular teachers are under 35, and these are virtually unheard of in secondary school.

NOT ALWAYS LIKE THIS

New Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has pledged that labor 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 eurozone.

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 laborer 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 labor costs associated with these contracts by renewing them as often as is allowed and then simply substituting the temporary worker with a new one.

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 programs to help them find a job.

“Without the prospect of even gradual stabilization 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 speech.

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