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Emigration and labour mobility

Emigration was and still is one of the most important economic and social phenomena of Italy: at first it was mainly international, but then more recently internal migration has also become significant. Early migration affected the entire country, whereas later, it was more common in the southern and mountainous regions of the country; generally, the phenomenon involved people from the agricultural and working classes, but recently more qualified workers and tertiary sector employees have been involved.

The dimensions of this phenomenon are singular when contrasted to the scarcity of specific measures both on an international and on a domestic level. Even statistically the phenomenon is rather unknown, because all studies on the issue are rather approximate.

[…] We could say that it is like an “open sore” or a pathological condition, and so there is a certain resistance to investigating the issue in depth to implement systematic and viable solutions; it might be said that there is even sometimes a desire to ignore the problem rather than confront it, in the hope that radical solutions will eliminate the phenomenon altogether.

But for clarity, if the term “migration” has negative connotations, evoking distance and painful departure, the term “mobility” of the workforce and citizens evokes human rights, liberation from servitude, and greater possibilities for developing personal skills, interests and the prospects of the family.

In summary, we could say that the main objective regarding emigration is not to regulate and eliminate the phenomenon, but to transform it progressively into labour “mobility”. It is almost paradoxical, but Italy has always been characterised by high levels of domestic and international migration, but a very low level of labour mobility. These two features of the Italian economy and society can coexist (a seemingly absurd scenario) – and indeed do tenaciously coexist – because, while on the one hand many take the dramatic decision to emigrate, many others after some years decide to come back. This flow is not fluid, nor widespread or diffuse. Both the exodus and the return tend to be traumatic choices (sometimes forced by sheer necessity) and do not favour free mobility. We could draw an analogy with certain African rivers; in the rainy season they tend to flood, while the rest of the time, they lack water and are incapable of providing much-needed water for crops in the surrounding territory: thus, we have the coexistence of a great abundance of water and a low capacity for irrigation.

This analogy, however, cannot be developed further, as it would become fallacious. Indeed, the difference between migration and mobility is not limited only to the coercive nature of the former in contrast with the prudent choice of the second. There is also another aspect to consider: migration is primarily unidirectional, whereas mobility is bi-directional. […]

But now we will focus on international migration. The first point to consider is the insufficient support services for emigrants at home. Institutionally, this should be the task of the Ministry of Labour. In principle, the ministry should transmit all employment opportunities received from abroad to the various provincial employment bureaus after initial screening of remuneration and other conditions (qualifications required, fiscal and sanitary expenses, insurance, holidays, etc). These bureaus should then communicate with local offices to disseminate these opportunities. Applicants should then undergo health visits and an appraisal of their professional qualifications; after that, applications should be sent to a selection committee including some representatives of foreign companies that have made the request, or even to more generic committees. Short-listed candidates should then be assisted by the provincial employment bureau to prepare all administrative documents for expatriation, and should be given a copy of the relevant work contract. On arrival in the destination country, all emigration support ceases.

The current results of this process are not very positive. As seen in the previously cited cnel report [Italian National Council for Economics and Labour], a considerable number of potential emigrants prefer to look for their own employment rather than to go through official channels. […] The crisis of our employment and support services for emigrants could not be clearer.

[…] What are the causes of this profound dysfunction in our emigration support service? According to the cnel report, one of the main reasons is that these are slow bureaucratic organisations and their official and detached approach tends to distance the emigrant, who prefers to take matters into his/her own hands. It appears that emigrants have little faith in these organisations. We also have to ask if the offers received from these organisations (disregarding the modality and time factor) are appropriate for the potential emigrant. First of all, we must acknowledge that some emigrants decide to go abroad without any clear agenda, but in the hope of finding some opportunity in the destination country: they do not, therefore, expect to be selected, and consequently, proceed under their own initiative to choose what they consider best. In countries with a great deal of choice, it is not difficult to achieve this goal. While continuing their placement activity based on single demands, employment bureaus should also be more realistic and assist those who desire to go abroad without some contract already in hand: they should function as information centres by providing general information regarding the various destination countries, and problems to be faced, how to reach the destination country, and so on.

[…] Another important chapter in assistance for emigration regards official training. Undoubtedly this problem presents a very delicate aspect: why should Italy cover the costs of training, if the results are going to be used elsewhere? How can this training be done in provinces with a low level of industrialisation, where – by definition – the scarcity of industry makes training activities problematic (outside official work schedules) through direct and specific agreements with industrial productive sector? This problem could be resolved within the eec through the European Social Fund.

After training, placement and starting work in the foreign country, a fourth phase should be implemented in the host country, involving local assistance on arrival. If the Italian bureaus were to give information and services to their clients regarding similar centres in the destination country, then their function would be much more effective. The emigrant would know that completing certain bureaucratic procedures before departure would facilitate or alleviate problems on arrival at their destination. Today these services are carried out by insufficient personnel in embassies and consular offices. What is needed is to develop foreign labour offices to give on-site assistance to emigrants. […]

Now we will pass on to the second aspect: integration in the emigrant community. This is probably the most problematic issue and differs from country to country. In Europe, a distinction must be made between eec countries and Switzerland, as most problems are encountered in Switzerland. Indeed, this country has no well-developed or centralised social security or health insurance programme. Most bureaucratic matters are left to the single Cantons, which are very jealous of their autonomy. This lack of centralisation is very much felt by the foreign worker who is exposed to issues such as lack of safety in the workplace or other high-risk situations regarding their well-being. Unlike Swiss workers, they have very little personal savings for adequate housing, and few possessions, which is important in the life of the Canton. The most serious problem, however, regards health. Switzerland has no federal level health insurance programme; each Canton has different legislation on health insurance and it is often not obligatory. Even when it is obligatory, it is often not transferable to other family members, leaving them without any health coverage. […]

Another source of discrimination against Italian emigrants in Switzerland is the limited access to benefits, which are available only for persons resident in the country: this means that any possible insurance payments made in Switzerland are lost by the returnee. This is also the case for unemployment benefits, which are automatically interrupted for those who re-enter Italy, even if they have worked in Switzerland for a certain number of years. Another discriminatory factor regards old age pensions (in Switzerland, these are closely linked to the number of years worked) […].

Analogous, if not identical, problems exist for insurance against occupational illness: very often these are manifested only much later, making it difficult to ascertain the country where they were contracted and to seek any form of indemnity. There is continual conflict between Italy and Switzerland regarding the relative obligation of each country, resulting in many delays for the emigrant before any payments are received, so that emigrants often return to Italy on account of ill-health. […]

Within the eec the problem of health insurance and rights in general for Italian emigrants has been largely resolved. The Italian worker is considered equal and has the same rights as citizens of the host nation, and can generally access social security benefits in that country, which can be transferred to the home country or to a third country.

A more delicate problem regarding social security benefits of emigrants in the eec area is coordination and unification. A worker, having matured pension payments in different countries in the eec, is entitled to all social security benefits paid in the member countries in which he/she has worked; this opens up many complex bureaucratic problems. Furthermore, the criteria used to determine occupational illnesses, health assistance payments, minimum pensionable age, and unemployment benefit often differ from country to country, creating a climate of uncertainty and complication. This problem should be eliminated with the harmonisation and integration of social security and health insurance systems within the eec, but sadly not all member countries are moving in the same direction. There are still differing necessities and a variety of national options. It is important that specific norms be directed towards emigrant labour to simplify the range of existing regimes and to optimise labour mobility. This is possible not only through bilateral conventions, but also action at a community level, using the European Social Fund to fill in any gaps.

The eec has no limitations to the mobility of people. Families can therefore circulate freely to join the emigrant worker. There are some legal matters to be resolved, and the financial obstacle involved in the cost of transfer of the family and the difficulty in finding accommodation often hinders movement. […] It is well known that there is much prejudice in Germany and Switzerland (similar to North Italy towards emigrants from the South) which can represent an obstacle for emigrant families. Additionally, some special provisions may also be accessible only for residents or nationals of that country.

[…] The most delicate point is perhaps accommodation for company workers who emigrate without their families. Obviously there are significant differences between one accommodation and another, but these often appear like concentration camps; dense rows of barracks, with few communal and hastily built bathroom facilities; few or little recreational or eating areas. These problems are most frequent in Germany and in Switzerland. The Italian organisation assisting the potential emigrant should verify if the accommodation is comfortable, pleasant, and suitable for the needs of our fellow citizens. Italian trade union representatives could do this job well with the support of our public administration. Social centres must also be set up in places separate from accommodation and should be distributed in the territory and personalised to avoid any social “segregation” or emigrant ghettos that could demean the Italian worker abroad. Some of these social centres already exist, usually run by Catholic organisations, but more coordinated official action is needed. […]

An important issue in the support for foreign workers is that of specific programmes organised by Italian information and cultural centres: there are no official house organs that deal specifically with emigrant-related issues. […]

Finally, the issue of emigrants’ remittances and savings. There is a widespread belief that a significant portion of emigrants’ savings in recent years has gone into international investment funds, because of the lack of national channels to receive such funds. Naturally, this is the choice of the emigrant worker, who is at liberty to choose the best option. Often the only seemingly viable option is to buy – often blindly – real estate in the host country, which is a negative investment for the emigrants who, craving a mirage, put themselves into the hands of unscrupulous agents. A more ideal solution would be an investment programme, in which funds can be easily mobilised when needed. Leading Italian financial institutions should study some form of saving or mortgage plan, offering protection from monetary depression, variations of exchange rates, etc. and especially designed for emigrants’ needs. Being present in the host countries would allow easy access to simple investment solutions with guarantees, possibilities for splitting profits, easy transferability of funds and renegotiability when needed.

To maximise the utility of these services (or other associated services), these could be used for the transfer of remittances at advantageous currency exchange rates (it is often the case that through lack of experience, the emigrant on re-entry converts foreign currency into local currency in the least favourable exchange rate).

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