Italy is struggling with one of the most difficult recessions in the last 50 years. Unemployment has peaked at 11 percent, with youth and women, especially in the south, suffering the most from the stagnant economy and lack of jobs. But what about the almost 5 million foreign-born residents, many of whom represent 10 percent of Italy’s labour force? How are they faring in the economic crisis? Have they been affected by the recession and high unemployment rates or are they safe from it all?
Immigration and immigrant labour is a highly complex issue in all countries, not just Italy. While the world must accept that borders are flexible and migration will soon be the norm around the world, the myth that ‘immigrants steal our jobs’ still pervades. Many Italians do not accept the notion that, often times, natives need immigrant labourers more than immigrant labourers need locals.
Who is tending to and keeping company with Italy’s family-less elderly? Who is washing dishes, cutting carrots and cleaning the restrooms in restaurants and bars? In other words, who is doing the jobs that the ‘natives’ don’t want to do anymore? How would public services be affected if these positions were vacant, and the government would thus have less tax revenue? The answers to these questions are a revelation: today’s immigrants are an essential element of the Italian population at large and by extension the country’s labour force. And here are the data to prove it.
The Fondazione Leone Moressa, in their annual Immigration Report 2012, provides numbers on immigrants and their effect on the national labour market and economy. The report tells us that currently more than 7 percent of the resident population and 9.8 percent of all those employed are immigrants. There was a rapid increase in the foreign workforce from 2007 to 2010 (from 6.5 percent to 9.1 percent), but the majority of this labour is employed in low-skilled sectors requiring few or no qualifications.
So, do ‘foreigners’ really steal Italians’ jobs? The majority of academic studies affirm that the foreign influx is a positive factor, especially in the light of the fact that for the most part it supplies low-skilled labour where none is available locally.
In Italy’s historical handicraft industries (non-industrialised production across every imaginable sector), there is clearly a pattern of foreign labour substituting for Italian labour (134,000 new foreign workers against an exodus of 174,000 Italian workers from the sector at large). Taking a close look at these numbers, we can note three separate phenomena. In food service (cooks, wait staff and bartenders) and in unskilled labour (assemblers, tinsmiths and welders), the incoming foreign labour far exceeds the outgoing Italian labour, meaning that the overall number of jobs is actually increasing. Comparing the immigrant and native ranks of street vendors (food, fruit and vegetables or other items), painters, varnishers and floor layers, the numbers are about equal.
However, although immigrants are filling the jobs available for warehouse workers, unskilled construction workers, builders, carpenters, drivers, plumbers and butchers, the number is below the number of Italians leaving these sectors. Across the board, foreign workers are pretty well taking up the slack where Italian labour has become largely unavailable.
There are undoubtedly many factors contributing to this complex situation. Young Italians are famously ‘choosy’ (a word that has now entered mainstream Italian slang thanks to a comment by Elsa Fornero, former technocrat minister of labour, social policies and gender equality), and many opt to live in comfort at home, unemployed, rather than ‘slumming it’ in a shared, unheated apartment in a rough part of town and working shifts to make ends meet. So, according to Ms. Fornero, local labour is not unavailable, but unwilling. At the same time, however, many unskilled immigrant workers are prepared to work at low, low prices (including unregistered cash in hand) and, despite living in desperately impoverished conditions, even manage to send cash to their families in their homeland. Even ‘un-choosy’ Italians have a hard time competing for such low-wage employment.
Foreigners apparently are not taking our jobs; they are supplying labour where local supply is literally drying up. But what exactly do we mean by ‘foreigners.’ Generally, we would have no problem with the head of cardiology of a famous medical facility in Milan being American. Or the great Japanese restaurant around the corner being run by a Japanese family. Neither does the managing editor of The Florentine being Canadian perturb us. In most of our minds, however, there are generally ‘these kinds of foreigners’ and ‘those kinds of foreigners.’
(For example, I have been living in Florence for 18 years, but I am still a ‘foreigner’—both statistically and culturally. I hold a job that my very ‘foreignness’ probably makes me (arguably!) better at than some of the ‘real’ Italians who work in my sector. Often, in my presence, I have heard the phrase, ‘I’d send the lot of them packing, back to their own countries …’ My raised eyebrow either goes unnoticed or provokes a totally unabashed and unembarrassed, ‘You’re not like them, you’re British.’)
At the heart of the matter, it’s unlikely that anyone ‘taking’ anyone else’s job can be a reasonable point of contention. A much larger social problem that Italy is learning to deal with is the social and ethical divide amongst its residents and the stigma that is now attached to those unskilled positions (vital to Italy’s economy) that young Italians scorn and the work-hungry immigrants are eager to take up, resulting in a dog-in-the-manger attitude that is of no help to anyone.
A few years ago in Dublin, I overheard an older gentleman talking to some tourists about how proud they were in Dublin of ‘our Poles,’ who had arrived just in time to ensure that their economy didn’t crumble in the face of scarce local unskilled workers. How long will it be until we, too, in Italy are able to talk about ‘our’ Albanians, Romanians and North Africans’ in the same way?