Visas For Members

How and why is Italy planning to reform its work visa?

Elaine Allaby
Elaine Allaby - [email protected]
How and why is Italy planning to reform its work visa?
Italy's work visa scheme is being exploited by criminals, PM Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday. Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP.

After Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced plans to reform the country's work visa scheme, what's the problem with the current system and what is she planning to change?


Meloni on Tuesday announced plans to overhaul the country's work visa system for non-EU nationals, saying it was being exploited by organised crime groups to smuggle in illegal migrants.

An analysis of the system had uncovered "alarming" data, she said in a cabinet briefing and video speech released by her office on the same day.

READ ALSO: Italy to reform work visa scheme over fears of mafia infiltration

In some regions, the number of applications was "totally disproportionate" to the number of potential employers, and "only a minimal percentage" of those who obtained a work visa actually signed an employment contract, she said.

"We are faced with a mechanism of fraud and circumvention of regular entry systems - with the heavy interference of organised crime - which we must stop and correct," the prime minister added.

So how does Italy's work visa system currently work, and why is it so vulnerable to abuse?

Decreto flussi

Every three years, Italy announces a quota of work visas known as the decreto flussi, or 'flows decree', with a set number of permits released each year.

These visas are almost entirely allocated to sectors for which there is a high need in Italy; mainly agricultural labour, caregiving, tourism, and heavy industry. Just a few hundred each year are reserved for other forms of work, like self-employment.

For that reason, immigration lawyer Nick Metta of Metta Studio Legale says he tells US-based clients hoping to move to Italy that it's not worth applying through the decreto flussi - he compares making a successful application to winning the lottery.

It's important to note that the decreto flussi is completely unrelated to Italy's new digital nomad visa and the EU Blue Card for highly qualified workers, which aren't subject to these quotas.


READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered about Italy's digital nomad visa

Despite coming to power in 2022 on an anti-immigration platform, Meloni's government significantly raised the decreto flussi quotas: in 2023 the limit was 136,000, compared to around 31,000 in 2018 and 2019.

Giorgia Meloni has said she plans to reform Italy's work visa scheme to combat criminal exploitation. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Nevertheless, the quotas remain massively oversubscribed: for the 151,000 places available in 2024, there were 690,000 applications, according to interior ministry data.

The days when applications open online are known as 'click days'. The slots are typically exhausted within minutes of the submissions window opening, not unlike buying tickets for a music festival. 

Open to abuse

The applications - which can only be made by the prospective employer, not the employee - are then processed chronologically in the order in which they were received, on a first come, first served basis.

In theory, when an application is successful, the prospective employer accompanies the prospective employee to the immigration desk at the local prefettura (prefecture) within eight days of their arrival in Italy to sign a contratto di soggiorno, or employment contract, and complete the process.


In reality, no one's really checking to make sure the employer actually goes through with this last part once the visa-holder has made it to Italy.

The migrant rights organisation Ero Straniero ('I was a foreigner'), wrote in a report published last week that just 23.5 percent of all decreto flussi visas approved by Italy last year actually ended in the employer and employee signing a job contract.

This makes the system ripe for abuse: any 'employer' can offer to put in an application for someone desperate for an Italian visa - for a price.

Meloni in her briefing on Tuesday said she'd heard of traffickers demanding payments of up to €15,000 for a work permit.

EU elections

The prime minister said she "didn't hesitate" to lodge a complaint with Italy's national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor on Tuesday as soon as she learned of the likely involvement of organised crime in the decreto flussi system.

In reality, there are reports dating back over a decade of unscrupulous agents asking for large sums of money in exchange for filing an application, and the timing of Meloni's speech, days before the EU elections, hasn't gone unnoticed.


According to Italian newspaper Domani, Ero Straniero and other migrants rights organisations wrote to the interior ministry in March highlighting the problem and asking the government to intervene on behalf of migrant workers.

The organisation recommends that the government offer temporary stay permits for decreto flussi visa-holders waiting for a contract so they're not left in a state of legal limbo.

Meloni's focus on Tuesday, however, was firmly on clamping down on the illegal sale of work permits and closing a loophole that has created a "further channel for irregular immigration" - though how she planned to do so was unclear.

Without offering any detail, the prime minister said the government was "already working on a set of regulations to stop this phenomenon" that would be presented in an upcoming cabinet meeting.

Whether the government's sudden interest in the issue is purely a question of shrewd electioneering, or whether it actually plans to take further action, will be revealed over the next few months.



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