In Test for Premier, Italians Rally Against Plan to Relax Labor Rules
New York Times, 18 novembre 2014
ROME — In Naples, demonstrators blocked traffic. In Padua, Pisa and Milan, they clashed with the police. Here, they lobbed eggs at government buildings and climbed to the top of the Colosseum to unfurl a protest banner.
While their grievances are many, much of what has propelled Italians into the streets by the tens of thousands in recent weeks is the mere hint of a change to labor laws that, among other things, would make it easier for businesses to get rid of workers.
No matter that the law, known as the Jobs Act, has yet to be fully written, or that many economists consider it inadequate to solving the problems of Italy’s economy, which continues to stumble through recession.
On Tuesday, after weeks of protests that have become an ever-clearer gauge of the obstacles confronting Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, lawmakers were already considering proposals to water down the plan.
“The Jobs Act institutionalizes the continual precariousness we have been living in Italy,” said Cristian Sica, 37, who works on a project-by-project basis for a ministry and joined a sit-in against the plan in front of Parliament last month.
Workers’ rights and protections should be broadened, not curtailed, he said, echoing a common refrain. “We are the precarious generation, in work, but above all in life,” he added.
Mr. Renzi, 39, assumed office in February, pledging to shake up Italy’s sclerotic system and overcome entrenched interests, including in his own center-left Democratic Party and the powerful labor unions that have long been a base of support.
He now faces pressure from various quarters to show he can deliver on his promises of change, not least from his eurozone partners, who are eager to see progress as Mr. Renzi seeks flexibility for Italy on budget limits set by Brussels.
But in a country where the first article of the Constitution declares it a republic “founded on work,” rolling back labor protections is not to be taken lightly. It is particularly telling that many of those opposing Mr. Renzi’s plans are young people.
They are deeply skeptical that the proposed change would in fact open jobs to them — so many other overhaul efforts before it have failed to do so. Instead, they are demanding the same guarantees that their parents have had, something it is not at all clear Italy can still afford.
“All he’s doing is destroying the rights of full-time workers without giving rights to people in precarious job situations,” said Francesco Raparelli, 36, one of the coordinators of a nationwide strike last Friday by thousands of workers who hold temporary contracts.
The prime minister argues that a change toward a looser labor market would benefit young people in particular, by creating jobs and getting Italy’s economy moving again. Nearly 43 percent of those 15 to 24 are unemployed.
He also says it would help solve the problem of what has become a two-tier work force in Italy. Solidly protected full-time workers — mostly older — are all but immovable and are still guaranteed ample pensions and retirement benefits.
Behind them is a wave of mostly younger workers who subsist on temporary, usually low-paid contracts, with few or no benefits.
Mr. Renzi is pushing for more flexible labor rules to make it easier to hire and fire workers, as a way to make entrepreneurs feel safer in taking on more full-time employees.
The current workers’ statute was written in 1970. Even though it was modified in 2012 to make it easier to get rid of employees with full-time contracts in firms with more than 15 people — for example, in the case of economic difficulty — Mr. Renzi argues that it is still too outdated.
“It’s like taking an iPhone and wondering, ‘Where do I put in the phone token?’ ” he told a recent gathering in Florence, in the typically homespun manner that has made him popular with millions of Italians eager for change.
But the debate over labor flexibility has swamped other parts of Mr. Renzi’s plan, which also includes gradual access to severance compensation, job training, simplified contracts and the extension of unemployment benefits to many who currently do not have any.
“At the core of the Jobs Act is the idea of shifting protection from the job to the individual, and protecting the transitions,” said Stefano Sacchi, a political scientist at the University of Milan, who helped draft the Jobs Act and is a consultant for the Labor Ministry.
Critics of the new measures say they would further erode protections without doing much to create new jobs.
“It’s a design, in the face of this crisis, drafted by the real powers — banking and finance — which have decided to cancel the rights of workers and the freedom that were sanctioned by the conquests” of 1970, said Giorgio Cremaschi, a former trade union leader.
Others, including some economists and business leaders, say that making firing easier is “not the right recipe” to spur Italy’s economic recovery. Even business leaders who support Mr. Renzi’s effort say stimulating the economy will require a much more multipronged approach.
That would include reducing labor costs, overhauling a justice system in which lawsuits are mired for years and drastically simplifying bureaucracy for things like permits.
“You have to start from the concept that it has to be feasible to do business here; that’s where the change has to happen,” said Marco Gay, the president of Confindustria, a national business lobby for young entrepreneurs.
“A business can go badly or can succeed, but you have to have the possibility to allow a company to be born,” he said.
Elisabetta Addis, an economics professor at the University of Sassari, said the fight over the labor law had become “more political than economic.” Despite the turmoil on the streets and in Parliament, the effect would probably be negligible.
“The debate over job reintegration will have no effect on the labor market at all,” she said, “So there’s no reason for Renzi to present it as leading to new jobs, nor for the unions to make it a point of honor.”
“People aren’t not hiring because of labor laws, but because there’s no internal or external demand,” she added. “Companies aren’t selling, and if that doesn’t change, it’s going to be difficult for the economy to restart.”
It also remains to be seen how the government would ultimately shape the changes. Until the rules are specified, there is no telling what the law’s effect would be.
“Let’s see how it is turned into law before we assess how it can impact the labor market,” said Stefano Scarpetta, the director for employment, labor and social affairs at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In the meantime, the protests are likely to continue. The Italian General Confederation of Labor, an especially combative union that brought an estimated one million people to a rally in Rome in late October, is now planning a general strike for Dec. 5.