Working in Italy

If you are English, working in Italy is like nothing you’ve ever known. It’s taken a good 15 years to understand the complex relationships that exist within a work climate that take some serious adjustment. This is particularly exacerbated in Florence where tourism fuels every aspect of the local economy, and it’s staggering history manages sometimes seems to hold the city back from becoming dynamic. In fact, travel a short distance up the Autosole motorway to the city of Bologna (home of Spaghetti Bolognese) and the work climate and culture is notably more  dynamic.

What follows is a non-Italian’s view of the work environment.

Workers Benefits

It is worth starting at the most important person within the working environment, the worker. Workers rights have been enshrined hsitorically through Italy’s past and present ties with trade unions. There are the infamous extra salaries that everyone (except for some categories of work – more on that later) are entitled too. Typically most employees can expect to recieve a 13th and 14th salary during the year. They fall in July and December. This is great because it means that just as the worker is going on their annual holiday and just before christmas, they can expect extra salaries.  They still get twelve monthly salaries, just two extra! There are some categories of employment, notably banking, where staff members can expect to get a 15th and 16th salary as well! In terms of time off workers get 2.5 days off each month and a certain number of hours each month which can be used up on things like doctors appointments. There is paternity leave and there is maternity leave.  And, depending on your contract there is also a healthy liquidation settlement (payment on leaving the company).

Sounds great doesn’t it? (read on!)

National Contracts

The ‘contratto collettivo nazionale di lavoro‘ (CCNL) is the official body that defines contracts in Italy. These guidelines also extend to minimum wages that should be paid to people depending on the category of work to which they belong, and the level which they are at. If you work in a shop there is a contract for you, if you work in an office, there is one for you too. The big problem is that these contracts, no matter how official the whole process is, basically pays you peanuts.

Consider that at this moment in Italy, over half of all families are unable to make ends meet at the end of the month. So, when you go back to workers benefits and take €800 – €1,300 as a net salary a month, and then factor in a flat rental at €800, even as an individual you are going to struggle. Let’s not even go so far as to extend that to a family with two children that might see a combined income of €2,100 from which need to come out all the expenses.

Fixed and temporary contracts

This is a oversimplication but the holy grail of employment for Italian’s is the contract “a tempo-indeterminato”. That means that it is a contract without an expiry date. It reallly is the holy grail, because once an employer grants this contract, the employee has rights to have that contract, basically for ever. The consequence of having all these benefits for the employee mean that employees are reluctant to give these contracts to staff unless they are absolutely sure that the worker is right for the business. The alternatives which are proposed, and this is more and more the case at a time when there is high unemployment and therefore lots of people prepared to endure this, is to offer “Stages” where the person will be taken on in a training capacity and then learn the ropes. The problem is that many of these stages end after a year and then the employer will just go off and get another person. There is also a contract “a progetto” (by project) which can be offered to a staff member and has far fewer benefits and should then upon the contract expiry automatically either end the work, or be converted to a indefinate length contract.

The Work Environment

The sheer number of people out of work – consider that at the time of writing unemployment is at 11% with the rate for 15-24 year olds running at 34% – mean that people will do anything to get a job. The work environment is much more hierarchical in Italy with employees following a top-down managerial style with the employed seen as subordinates to senior management. It’s worth at this point mentioning that there are plenty of companies that have flat structures and are good at having a healthy dialogue with their staff, but for the most part employees are made to feel that they are lucky to have their job and someone else could easily be doing it if they stepped out of line. There is also little in the way of meritocracy within the typical office environment with staff that seek to excel being rewarded in ways that really make them feel like working more. What’s more, as the status-quo is very much to jusy get your head down and don’t rock the boat too much you might even find yourself creating problems for yourself if you do start to really make a contribution. The consequence of this is that you can end up with a workforce that aren’t motivated to do anything more than what they have on their contract. This might be fine for work categories where the dimension of the job will always be the same (but I think everyone would work harder if they were offered more money) but it is particularly problematic in industries that are developing new technologies or trying to drive innovation. It’s why many of Italy’s most talented individuals simply leave and go and work in other countries. Again, it’s worth repeating that this is not the case in every environment but it is certainly in tune with a great many.

Dress code

I am always surprised by the style of people that work in offices, because knowing that their salaries will likely be so low the question I ask is, what’s left for living after the clothes! Despite getting paid very little, employees will expect their staff to dress well.

But this is all starting to look very one sided. Let’s see this from the employers point of view.

The Employer

Let’s say that you are going to be employing a person and for arguments sake you wanted to pay them a salary that you feel they could live on, the costs are simply unimaginable. Let’s set an office salary at the heady heights of €1,800 a month net. You, as an employer can expect to have to pay a total of €4,000 to pay that net salary. These are because of the employment laws in favour of the worker make the worker expensive (contributions, liquidation account payments and all the other benefits (13th and 15th salary) that need to be paid as part of the contract). This is untenable for many businesses, but the national contract places the salary so low that the employer can just about get by with it. The worker will never get a decent salary because it simply costs too much to give them more!

What happens time and time again is that, in the case of small sized businesses, the staff member ends up getting more benefits and being paid better than the business owner. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people taking on staff themselves and hearing these words.

Where does that leave Italy?

Put simply going round in circles. The cost of an employee is too high, national contracts are too low, and but because there is not an over demand for jobs, many people are tied to contracts that pay poor, and employees unable to afford to pay the employee more because it would bankrupt them. This might be a bleak picture or it might be something similar to where you call home.

And things can always change!