The best thing that can be said about being an employee in Italy is that they have long enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle. They’ve had monthlong vacations, complete job security, above-par dining at the cafeteria, and countless benefits that range from full health care to the occasional companyprovided mortgage and lifelong pensions for some.

Enjoy it while it lasts. The strength of the unions in Italy may never allow for a completely free labor market, but the desperate condition of Italy’s balance sheets led to austerity measures that have succeeded where successive conservative governments have failed: In 2012, Mario Monti’s caretaker government passed laws that made it easier to hire and fire workers. Public sector employees are already feeling the squeeze.

The traditional security and comfort afforded to Italian employees have come at another cost. The average monthly salary is well below what you’d find in the United States for a similar post, and there’s little chance you’ll ever make it to the inner circle of top earners.

Whether an unintended consequence of socialist labor laws, or a by-product of centuries of feudalism, or, in many cases, just plain laziness, social mobility is a rare phenomenon in this part of the world. Rags-to-riches stories are almost unheard of. Admission to Italy’s elite is by invitation only, and all the seats in the so-called salotto buono, or fine drawing room, are already comfortably occupied.

The highest echelons of business surround themselves in an impenetrable fortress of power. The Agnelli family and their circle of friends, most notably the heads of creditor banks such as Mediobanca, still control the country’s corporate giants. These include the consolidated mega-banks and insurance companies as well as the utilities and telecoms that were privatized in the 1990s. The salotto safeguards its interests through shareholder pacts to defend against takeovers by the wrong sort of people.

The great majority of all Italian companies are private, midsized, and still family-held, and thus there is little chance you’ll see the inside of the boardroom unless your last name is the same as the founder’s. These are deep-rooted traits in the Italian economy that may never change. At the lowest levels, that of the operai, or manual laborers, well, they seem to harbor few aspirations, at least in the eyes of managers, who assume that workers are easily contented with the company-provided ski trips and intramural soccer games on Saturdays.

If this strikes you as an overly cynical assessment of a Western economy, note the success enjoyed by the best-selling 2007 book The Caste, by Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, and the political frenzy it engendered. This indictment of the de facto class system in Italy explains why politicians are untouchable and why the moneyed class is so deeply entrenched.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the business community starting making overtures toward a more equitable distribution of fortune. In a December 2007 speech, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the leader of the nation’s industrialists’ lobby, lamented that 6 in 10 children of manual laborers go on to do the same work as their parents, as do 7 in 10 children of professionals and managers. We live in a caste system, he said.

So what does all this mean for a foreigner looking for a job in Italy? Well, you will be the consummate outsider in a system run by insiders. On the other hand, as U.S. expat, your outsider status may actually work to your advantage. Italian employers’ respect for the American work ethic and English-language skills is discussed under The Job Hunt. As a business owner, being an outsider simply means that you have a lot to learn about your new country.

Self-Employment Despite the considerable challenges, many foreigners have chosen to mettersi in proprio (start their own businesses), ranging from web design to goat farming. Lots of them cater to a North American clientele in such fields as wine export, relocation services, and travel agencies. These are, for the most part, small businesses, employing only the owner and perhaps a spouse or children, a practice that can be chalked up to strict hiring laws and expensive benefits for employees. Businesses with fewer than 15 employees are immune from many restrictions.


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