Imagining Books 26 June Jun 2017 1041 26 June 2017

Chronicle of twenty years of flexibility

From the “Treu Package” (after the name of the minister who proposed it) to the Jobs Act, Italy is moving swiftly in the direction of flexibility, to ensure more mobility in the labour market. However, to sustain growth more active policies on employment are needed as well as a general reform of subsidies

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The law 196/1997 is known as “Treu Package” in the Italian political debate. In order to mark a watershed in the Italian labour market, this law is the starting point. The Treu Package has in fact introduced, for the first time in the Italian legal system, the first elements of organic flexibility in the labour market. Flexibility in the labour market seems to be a characterizing feature of our society, considering its key importance in the political and social debates in our country. On the one hand, someone identifies flexibility as the source of all evils - from precarity to unemployment - on the other the same flexibility is deemed to be the sole recipe to get the labour market in Italy moving again.

This work is a compass for orientation in this debate, a volume that seeks to broaden the perspective, taking history as a means to analyse not only the political and economic reasons for flexibility, but also its cultural roots and sociological motives. The starting point is unhinging a common perception. Too often flexibility is identified as fracture between a prosperous and stable society, - and therefore happy - and another type of society, dominated by uncertainty and instability, immediate consequences of the drift towards flexibility.

Actually we can think that capitalism is by its very nature flexible, having to adapt to the cyclic requirements of profit, its configurations and diverse conditions. Even during Fordism, there had been a rift between normatively guaranteed occupations (for example in Italy, large companies and public employment) and other occupations without such institutional safeguards, such as small companies or family-type informal economy.

The magic word in Europe is flexicurity, i.e. the perfect balance between flexibility and social safety, but this is a luxury that few can afford.

Flexibility was already the subject of diverse social reflections, albeit with some relevant variations, and therefore cannot be considered as a new idea. The new challenge is how to facilitate mobility and, at the same time, to act as a parachute for citizens during their transition phase while in search of a job. The magic word in Europe is flexicurity, i.e. the perfect balance between flexibility and social safety. As described in the volume “L’Italia che lavora. Persone, flessibilità e prospettive”, (“Working Italy. People, flexibility and perspectives”,) published by Feltrinelli, flexicurity is however a luxury that few can afford: encouraging flexible working hours and implementing a social safety net is an expensive model, generally only suitable for small countries, with homogeneous markets and able to access to niche market areas. The German case, in which a generous welfare protection of new flexible workers has not limited the increase in social inequalities, shows that even the most virtuous European capitalism cannot afford an efficient flexicurity.

The book shows how in Italy, from 1997 (year of the Treu package) onwards, the process of the flexibilisation of labour has been speeded up both by changing job safeguards and by allowing companies to assign workers to different tasks, with different times shifts and in diverse locations. If in certain cases the new contracts facilitate transition toward a stable job position, however the excessive use of atypical work contracts has trapped a large part of workers in precarious job conditions, as confirmed by Istat data. These confirm that over half a million people had precarious jobs for at least 5 years, from 2008 to 2013.

The causes of the weak growth in Italy can be attributed not only to the labour market rules, but also to structural problems affecting productivity and to poor business innovation. From the Treu Package to the Jobs Act, to the Biagi law and the Fornero reform, all these employment measures together were not able to support the transition process toward flexibility neither with a comprehensive reform on the social safety net nor with efficient investments on active labour policies. In consideration of all these aspects, there is still a long way to go.