Italy’s lettori divided on £36 million plan to end epic dispute

Mistreated foreign lecturers welcome ‘endgame’ of marathon dispute but some say strings attached to a proposed deal are unacceptable

二月 11, 2022
Amos Kipruto crossing the finish line in Rome to illustrateItaly’s lettori divided on  £36 million plan to end epic dispute
Source: Alamy

A decades-long legal fight by foreign university staff in Italy for equal pay and conditions may finally be resolved after ministers set aside €43 million (£36 million) to compensate lecturers.

The claims of about 1,000 foreign language assistants, known as the lettori, who say they were underpaid for years on account of a lack of equal job status, hit an impasse back in 2011 when Rome ignored calls by the UK government and European Union politicians to settle the matter.

However, a surprise intervention by the European Commission in November led Italy to revisit the cases after the commission demanded an end to “discrimination”, stating that “most foreign lecturers have still not received the money to which they are entitled”. A failure to respond could have seen Italy stripped of some of the €15 billion that the EU is funnelling into Italian universities over the next five years as part of its €807 billion Covid-linked Next Generation recovery package.

The dispute goes back to 1980, when Italy passed a law granting tenure to Italian nationals teaching in universities while giving lettori annual contracts renewable for five years. This was successfully challenged in Italian courts and the European Court of Justice during the 1990s and early 2000s as discriminating on the basis of nationality, but no action was ultimately taken against Italy.

Any opportunity for redress appeared permanently blocked by the Gelmini law – named after Mariastella Gelmini, a former higher education minister – which came into force in 2011 and specifically “extinguished” ongoing lawsuits being pursued by the lettori.

But, recommending the approval of about €43 million to co-finance settlements with Italian universities, current higher education minister Maria Cristina Messa explained that the government could not simply pass the problem on to universities because “it is up to the member state to ensure the application of EU law”.

“The endgame is in sight for the longest-running breach of EU parity of treatment rules,” said Henry Rodgers, from Sapienza University of Rome, an Irish national who has been based in Italy since the 1990s.

“Employment rights which should have been automatic under the EU treaties have been withheld for decades,” he added, stating staff “look forward to receiving the long-due settlements in the coming months”.

However, David Petrie, chair of the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy, was concerned that the deal might come with strings attached, particularly as ministers had no desire to repeal the Gelmini law.

“They have put some money on the table but they have not abrogated the Gelmini law and its modifications, in which lettori must renounce arrears for the past in order to get paid for the future,” he said.

The proposed agreement would calculate compensation, such as improved pensions and salaries, “up until the Gelmini law but altered downward after that”, explained Mr Petrie.

“And why would the universities contribute? They haven’t done so in the past – one has, Milan, but why would others do so [unless] they are not forced?

“Italy has put some more cash on the table hoping that lettori will accept it, and some might, especially those with a few more years’ service to go. Those already on pension will get nothing in compensation for unpaid arrears on wages and pensions.”



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Reader's comments (4)

It should be obvious that retired beneficiaries of the ruling in CJEU Case C-119/04 do not lose their entitlement to the settlements provided for under that ruling just because they are retired. These settlements are compensation for discriminatory treatment over careers which lasted on average 30 to 35 years. The Gelmini law cannot deny retired colleagues their settlements. EU law prevails over domestic law. The Commission, as Guardian of the Treaty, opened infringement proceedings against Italy to ensure that all beneficiaries of the ruling in Case C-119/04 receive the settlements for reconstruction of career due to them from the date of first employment. It should be further reassuring for retired colleagues that Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas has reiterated the Commission’s determination to ensure full compliance with the ruling in Case C-119/04 in recent signed letters to MEPs and representative unions. Kurt Rollin. Representative for retired colleagues. Asso.CEL.L
Dear Kurt, many thanks for this clear explanation and irrefutable argumentation. Leen Spruit, lecturer Dutch Sapienza University (retired)
The Italian government, in several cases that have been decided by the Supreme Court since 2017, has once again confabulated a remarkable way to deny full arrears pay to the foreign language lecturers. Using what they call an " authentic interpretation" the Gelmini law (passed in 2010, years after the CJUE sentence), the courts are declaring that the salary class link agreed on by the Italian State ends in 1995. After that date the University owes only the difference in salary between what the foreign language lecturer earned at that time vs what their Italian counterpart earned. This effectively freezes the foreign language lecturer's career in 1995; for the next 27 years there are no salary increases and pension contributions. The result, already seen in sentences in the Italian courts as late as November 2022, is to offer the language lecturer about 40% of what is owed, condemning her to a pension of about 55% of what a full, good faith implementation of the ruling would be: €1100 vs €2000 circa. The Italian government continues to be a bad faith actor in this case. The solution is for the Commission to clearly indicate that the clause in the 2010 Gelmini law regarding Italy's "authentic interpretation" of the sentence of the CJEU does not apply, and cannot be used in the calculation of arrears and pensions. The relationship and salary of the lecturers must be calculated honestly with the salary link continuing throughout the entire career of these University staff workers. Otherwise 38 years of litigation will continue.
One must distinguish between the European Union legal order, of which the infringement proceedings form part. and the Italian legal order. Following on the opening of European Commission infringement procedures 2021-4055 against Italy, the Lettori do not have to have recourse to the Italian courts to receive the settlements due to them for decades of discriminatory treatment. Commissioner Schmidt has pledged that the infringement proceedings will not be closed until all the beneficiaries of the ruling in Case C-119/04 have received the monies due. The authority of the Commissioner apart, there is a further encouraging precedent. The University of Milan has agreed on a settlement for reconstruction of career with 20 Lettori, which values the payments for reconstruction of career due to them at over 5 million euros. It is obvious then that in arithmetic done by the university to arrive at this figure the Gelmini Law was ignored. Hence, Kurt Rollin of Asso.CEL.L is justified in his reading of the situation. All universities must now follow the Milan example.