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Why is Italy's government opposed to the minimum wage?

AFP
AFP - [email protected]
Why is Italy's government opposed to the minimum wage?
Agriculture, catering cleaning and tourism jobs in Italy are among those paying far below the suggested minimum wage of nine euros per hour. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

The Italian government on Thursday cut short a debate on introducing a minimum wage, postposing any further discussion until late September - even though the majority of the ruling parties' voters are in favour.

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Security guard Aurelio Bocchi takes home just under four euros an hour in northern Italy, a paltry sum on which, he says, "we don't live, we survive".

He's not alone. Bocchi is one of more than three million workers in Italy who earn less than nine euros an hour before taxes.

Italy is one of the last countries in Europe not to have a statutory minimum wage, and the 3.96 euros net Bocchi is paid an hour in Padua, a wealthy city renowned for its Giotto frescoes, is determined by his union contract.

Once he has forked out his monthly rent of 610 euros, Bocchi has 260 euros left to live on.

"I don't splurge, I don't drink, I don't smoke and I save on everything", says the 64-year-old, who nevertheless has no chance of putting aside enough to fund his dream of buying a motorbike to travel the world.

Italy's opposition parties - in a rare show of near-unity - have been campaigning to put an end to "poverty wages" by setting a legal minimum of 9.00 euros gross per hour.

But the hard-right government, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, wants none of it.

READ ALSO: Why doesn't Italy have a minimum wage?

Fierce battles have raged in parliament, with Meloni saying a statutory minimum wage was "nothing more than a slogan that risks creating problems", a reference to what she says it would cost Italy's many small and medium-sized businesses.

On Thursday, the government cut short the debate, postponing any further discussion of the issue in parliament until the end of September.

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According to opinion polls, 70 percent of Italians, including most of Meloni's voters, are in favour of introducing a minimum wage.

Italy is one of just five European Union countries - along with Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden - where wages are determined solely by collective bargaining between employers and trade unions.

In November 2022, the EU laid down rules governing minimum wages, but does not oblige member states to adopt the system.

Deputy Prime Minister Antonio Tajani recently described a minimum wage policy as being for the "Soviet Union".

Tajani instead proposed extending collective bargaining agreements to the 20 percent or so of employees not covered by the nearly 1,000 such agreements currently in force.

But many deals remain well below nine euros gross, like those which cover the cleaning (6.52 euros), catering (7.28 euros) and tourism (7.48 euros) sectors.

READ ALSO: Italy ranked one of the worst countries for expats to work in - again

Italy is the only European country where real wages, adjusted for inflation, fell nearly three percent between 1990 and 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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The average gross annual salary in Italy, 28,781 euros, is also below the EU average.

David Benassi, a professor of sociology at Milan's Bicocca University, told AFP the resistance to a statutory minimum wage in Italy could partly be traced to the number of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs).

"SMEs are ubiquitous in Italy, and work and wage flexibility is very important for them," Benassi said.

Simone Fana, author of a book called "Enough with Hunger-Inducing Wages", said the government was "fundamentally opposed to the minimum wage because its electoral base is made up of micro-businesses that are making profits by reducing labour costs".

They include shopkeepers, restaurant owners and farmers, who are opposed both to the minimum wage and the so-called "citizenship income", a poverty relief scheme they say makes it difficult to recruit workers.

Trade unions have traditionally rejected any interference in the wage bargaining process. Though the largest, the left-leaning CGIL, has finally come round to the idea, the other major union, the CISL, warns it could increase black-market work.

Security guard Bocchi has taken legal action against his employer, Civis, over low wages.

Milan's labour court has already ruled that Civis is in violation of the constitution, which stipulates workers have the right to salaries "sufficient to ensure for themselves and their families a free and decent existence".

In July, Bocchi's pay was increased by just 28 cents an hour - but despite struggling he steadfastly refuses to "live off the community" by claiming benefits.

He may not have been able to anyway. Launched in 2019 by a party now in opposition, Italy's 'citizenship income' - a benefit for the unemployed and those on low wages - is being slashed by Meloni.

The first 159,000 families were told by text message on Friday that they were no longer eligible, with others set to soon follow.

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