Nearly a year after Italy’s first nationwide lockdown took effect, the coronavirus pandemic has brought the country’s fragile economy to its knees and cost thousands of workers their wages. Class resentment is mounting, but it’s not directed at the rich: Many Italians are turning their growing frustration against civil servants and other public employees, whose jobs are protected by contracts that rule out layoffs and furloughs.
Government workers seem to be the ideal scapegoat for Italy’s job security crisis. It’s no wonder that many people have come to see them as unfairly privileged amid the lockdowns. There are 3.2 million public employees in Italy, comprising 14 percent of the total workforce. They include 1.2 million school and university employees, roughly 650,000 health care workers, and 570,000 police and armed forces, along with civil servants. But since October 2020, more than half a million jobs have been lost in Italy, and many more are likely to follow suit when a layoff ban expires next month.
Italy’s economic troubles predate the pandemic, and the country now faces a pivotal moment. Before then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned in January 2021, his government approved an ambitious $268 billion plan for economic recovery. The task of managing this plan now falls to the new prime minister and former European Central Bank chief, Mario Draghi, who has said that he feels the “responsibility to start a new reconstruction” for Italy. But public anger directed at government workers has so far overshadowed and precluded a serious policy debate about widespread unemployment, job security, and low wages.
Major media outlets from across the political spectrum and even high-ranking politicians have fomented the bitter sentiment, leaving civil servants themselves concerned about the growing hostility. Draghi’s new minister for public administration, Renato Brunetta, is already well known for his antagonism toward government employees. When he held the same position under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from 2008 to 2011, Brunetta railed against “slackers” and passed a reform that introduced penalties for public workers who took sick days.
“I am very worried by this climate. It’s a dramatic moment for those who are losing their income, but there’s a lot of resentment against those who are lucky enough to have a job,” said Alberto Ferrante, a senior public servant in Rome. Ferrante has meticulously tracked the social media insults he has seen directed at public employees. Besides the routine ones (like “leech,” “dead weight,” or “parasite”), he found a recurring neologism: ipergarantito or overly protected.
Italy once had a highly regulated labor market. Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute, a 1970 law, banned mid- and large-sized companies from laying off staff without just cause and forced them to rehire employees who were laid off unfairly. But reforms introduced in the past 15 years have made jobs less secure. The just cause law was weakened by 2003 legislation that facilitated the use of temporary contracts, and it was repealed entirely in 2014. These liberalizations do not explicitly include public workers, creating a double-track job market in which government employees still enjoy a much higher degree of job security than their private-sector counterparts.
This double standard has long aroused some discontent in Italy. “As long as the economy was doing well, there was an unspoken social contract: Public servants got lower wages but more secure jobs. But since Italy’s economy took a left turn, these jobs became more attractive because the private sector started to pay less and became more precarious,” said Andrea Roventini, a professor of economics at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.
These grievances reached new heights with the lockdowns, first in March and then in November 2020. When the pandemic hit, Conte quickly issued a layoff ban—since extended a few times—but it doesn’t apply to companies that declare bankruptcy or have exhausted their furlough plan. It also does not protect temporary or self-employed workers. Government employees, meanwhile, cannot even be furloughed. With more than 6.5 million Italian workers currently receiving only a fraction of their wages, it’s no surprise that they see public servants as surviving the pandemic unscathed.
Discontent with some parts of the public sector is not entirely misplaced: Italy’s bureaucracy, for example, is notoriously Kafkaesque. But many critics misunderstand that if government employees can’t be furloughed, they must be receiving their full wages for doing nothing. Two prominent economists, Tito Boeri and Roberto Perotti, argued in an op-ed in La Repubblica in November 2020 that furlough schemes should be extended to civil servants in the interest of “social cohesion.” “In the public sector, there are those who have completely stopped working and yet kept receiving their wages,” they wrote.
Although this may have been true for a small number of civil servants during the strict phases of Italy’s March 2020 lockdown, many public employees were essential workers. Medical and security personnel continued their jobs, now more important than ever, in person, while teachers and bureaucrats worked remotely. Only those with non-essential jobs, such as museum ticket collectors and school janitors, were briefly put on paid leave.
The distrust toward government employees also seems to stem from the perception that remote work doesn’t really count as work, particularly in the public sector. In December 2020, then-Minister for Public Administration Fabiana Dadone threatened to revoke the right to work remotely for public employees with unsatisfactory performance, public health recommendations aside. “For some public servants, so-called smart working was just a long paid vacation,” former senator Pietro Ichino told the right-wing newspaper Libero.
Despite calls for furloughs and pay cuts among public employees, neither proposal offers a solution to the job security crisis, Roventini said. These actions wouldn’t solve problems with government efficiency—which already suffers from cuts and hiring freezes—and it would have a negligible effect on public spending. “There is a view that presents itself with pseudo-economic justification, but it’s just class hatred,” he said.
The current climate in Italy reflects two preexisting cultural prejudices exacerbated by the pandemic: one against public employees and another against those who benefit the most from government spending, according to Andrea Mariuzzo, a history professor at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. “On one hand, there is the idea that public servants are slackers who got their job through political connections and spend the whole day doing nothing, which has very deep roots in Italy,” he said. “Then there’s a more recent phenomenon: the mentality that if someone gets poorer, rather than asking the government to help them out, they should ask the government to lower its spending on everyone else,” including those on its payroll.
For the moment, high-profile politicians are cautiously trying to balance the need to condemn public servants’ perceived privileges without making too many enemies. Carlo Calenda, the rising star of the centrist opposition, seems to have adopted this strategy. When public servants declared a strike on Dec. 9, 2020, he wrote on Facebook: “There is something profoundly out of tune about this strike. Families and less insured workers have to suffer disruptions, in the midst of a pandemic, for a strike by the most insured workers.”
Political leaders are now caught between two fires. They face growing public opinion that wants to see civil servants’ privileges dismantled—but at the end of the day, the politicians can’t afford to antagonize their colleagues beyond Parliament. “All the parties in power are relatively new to government positions. They lack experience of how the government works, so to get their job done, they need the support of bureaucrats more than ever,” Mariuzzo said. Of course, public employees vote too.
Italy’s vaccination program is lagging behind other developed countries, and its economic crisis continues to worsen. With hard times, resentment against public employees who are somewhat shielded from the crisis is likely to increase. But as long as the current debate centers around scapegoating civil servants and calling for punitive measures against them, few politicians seem interested in finding an actual solution.