recent shipwreck of the Concordia, one of the largest cruise liners flying the Italian flag
(though Costa Cruises is owned by Florida-based Carnival Corp), seemed like
a metaphor for Italy's sinking economy. This year (2012) will probably see
negative GDP numbers, or in any event very little growth, and perhaps 300,000
more unemployed around the country.
Inflation is increasingly evident and retail sales are down significantly,
with many stores closing. In many cities (Palermo is a good example) the
terrible economy has spawned a plethora of betting agencies, gold buyers
and pawn brokers but few new shops. Kebab stands and pizzerias abound, but
few high-end restaurants have opened over the last few years.
It is estimated that around 14,000 businesses have closed in Sicily in the
last two years (2010-2011), and that around 42,000 jobs have been lost.
Youth unemployment (in Italy defined as anybody under 30 searching for
work) is at least 30% nationally and closer to 40% in Sicily. Many young
Italians seek work abroad each year - around 100,000 go to Australia. In
the public sector workplace nepotism is the norm,
and so is mediocrity. Not a single Italian university is ranked in the world's
top 150 according to international surveys - and the University of Bologna
is the only one which occasionally breaks into the top 200.
Amidst this economic and social disaster, the government is launching a number of long-overdue
reforms that should help matters eventually. Here are a few.
New Businesses: By the end of the year it will be possible for
a young Italian (under 35) to start a small, limited-liability corporation
with just one euro, registering it online in a matter of minutes. Until
now, this required thousands of euros in "capitalization" and,
in fact, most of Italy's so-called "young entrepreneurs" are actually
nothing more than the figli di papà ("sons of rich fathers")
who worked in family businesses established by their fathers or grandfathers.
These new companies established by young people may be maintained without
a change in corporate registration or tax status until the owner is 36 years
old. When introducing this bill, Prime Minister Mario Monti said he wanted
to create an environment in Italy where a budding Bill Gates could prosper.
Professions: Medical and legal professionals will no longer be
bound by laws establishing minimum or maximum fees, so in theory competition
will be possible. Moreover, more candidates will be allowed entry into these
fields. This includes notaries, who in Italy are specialist lawyers authorized
to certify certain types of transactions, such as the letters of incorporation
for new businesses and non-profit organizations. Obviously, the incorporation
of the youth businesses mentioned above will not need notarizations. Incidentally,
quotations (cost estimates) of professional services will be required, though
only if the client specifically requests one.
Pharmacies: Listing of "alternate" generic products
will be required in prescriptions. Also, it will now be permissible to set
up a druggist for every 3,000 residents in a particular area, and this means
that thousands of new pharmacies can be established around Italy. It will
be possible, as long as pharmacists are present on-site, to operate pharmacies
in supermarkets. The sale of non-prescription drugs (such as aspirin) will
now be possible even in supermarkets that do not have pharmacies.
Railway Privatization: Private railway companies will be permitted
greater access to the national rail network. Though private railways existed
in Italy historically (in Sicily the one around Mount
Etna is an example), there haven't been many since the 1920s. This will
Fuel: Gas (petrol) stations will have greater flexibility in purchasing,
being allowed to buy almost 50% of their fuel products, including diesel
fuel, from suppliers other than their franchise. In theory, independent
(non-branded) stations could also be established, and pricing will be more
flexible - and probably more competitive.
In addition to these bills and laws, a number of others are being considered seriously for the first time.
Minimum Wage: Incredibly, Italy doesn't have one (in the US and
UK the national minimum wage is equal to around 6 euros per hour for adults).
When this question is addressed more directly in a few months, the most
likely solution will be a minimum monthly salary guaranteed within the context
of short term (3 year) contracts. There is lively debate about possible
abolition of the infamous Article 18 of the Workplace Statute
(Statuto dei Lavoratori) approved in 1970, which essentially guarantees
employees in the public sector and larger firms jobs for life regardless
of how incompetent, lazy or insubordinate they may be; no other country
in Europe has anything similar to this law, which has effectively forced
most private-sector employers, reluctant as they are to take on employees
they can never let go, to give new workers - mostly under 35 - only short-term
contracts. This has spawned a generation of precari lacking any long-term
job security whatsoever. Parliamentarians envisage Article 18 being applied
for those already employed under this guideline, but successive employment
(after 2012) being based on new standards. The labor unions, which represent
an earlier generation of employees, oppose any change. We'll see how this
shapes up. The fact that this situation is even under discussion is itself remarkable.
Bureaucracy and Babies: Several proposals focus on making life
easier. The public record of one's official place of
residence - a silly "Big Brother" practice inherited from the Fascists - will be easier
to change, within 20 days instead of several months. A special court, similar to the
administrative TAR (which addresses the enforcement of certain laws by local authorities), will be instituted
to redress problems resulting from bureaucrats' frequent errors in applying laws and regulations. Maternity leave will be more flexible,
especially for women with complicated pregnancies. To make Italy a more accommodating
country for visitors, an efficient network of tourist information centres will be established.
Italy is being dragged, much belatedly, kicking and screaming, into the
21st century - or perhaps the 20th. Much remains to be done during 2012
and in the next few years, but these changes are a good sign. Sicily's "Golden
Age" ended with the demise of the Hohenstaufen
dynasty of Frederick II in the 13th century, but
while the recent reforms won't change the economy overnight they are a welcome
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written about social topics for various Italian magazines, including this one.