Brussels threatens Italy over failure to end lettori dispute

European Commission warns of further legal action after Italian universities refuse to offer back pay to unjustly treated foreign lecturers

February 7, 2023

Foreign lecturers in Italy who have been denied equal pay and conditions for decades have welcomed the European Commission’s threat of fresh legal action over unpaid compensation.

The Brussels-based commission called on Italy to “put an end to discrimination of foreign lecturers”, saying it would begin proceedings in the European Court of Justice in two months unless decades of back pay due to international academics were paid, noting that “most foreign lecturers have still not received the money to which they are entitled”.

By failing to compensate the lettori, Italy was “still discriminating against foreign lecturers”, explained the infringement notice published on 26 January.

The notice observed that Italy had failed to abide by an ECJ ruling in 2006, which drew attention to a 2004 Italian law that, it said, “provides an acceptable framework for the so-called reconstruction of careers of foreign lecturers” in Italian universities.

“This means that the law allows for the adjustment of their salary, seniority and corresponding social security benefits to those of a researcher under a part-time contract, and it grants them the right to back-payments as of the start of their employment. However, the majority of universities did not take the steps needed for a correct reconstruction of the lettori’s careers,” it adds.

The threat of legal action is the latest milestone in the decades-long dispute affecting about 1,000 foreign language assistants, which began in 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 in 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.

Last year, the dispute appeared to be close to an end when Italy’s higher education minister, then Maria Cristina Messa, recommended that €43 million (£36 million) be put aside to settle the claims, but many universities have still continued to resist handing over any back pay.

David Petrie, chair of the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy, said Italian universities should not be allowed to benefit from an estimated €15 billion over the next five years, part of European Union Covid recovery funding focused on research institutions, while it continued to flout EU law – in particular, by creating fresh legislation that sought to extinguish lettori’s claims for back pay.

“The Italian state, instead of implementing and paying up what they were legally obliged to pay, shifted the goalposts by producing a legislative pastiche beginning with the ‘Gemini’ law and a subsequent so-called authentic interpretation, which led to chaos in the domestic courts and in the universities themselves,” said Mr Petrie.

“In effect, these measures attempted to rewrite the ECJ ruling to the detriment of those foreign lecturers still awaiting arrears on their wages and pensions,” he explained, adding that “Italian courts frequently ignored the ECJ ruling of 2021 and 2004 in favour of the new money-saving legislation” and had also “refused repeated requests from our lawyers asking that individual cases be sent back to the Luxembourg court, which is supreme in matters of interpretation of EU law.

“Italian universities, bankrolled by their paymasters in the Italian state, continue to refuse to pay the correct wages and pensions of their non-Italian teaching staff. Meanwhile, under the EU recovery fund, Italy continues to suck up money in the form of research grants for the Horizon Programme and Erasmus for its students,” continued Mr Petrie.

“It cannot be right that 30 years of illegitimate discrimination goes unpunished. Italy flouts and even flaunts its contempt for the European single market while supping greedily from common EU funds in the field of education.”

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The cause of the lettori - the foreign lecturers in Italian universities who have long been campaigning for improved employment and pension rights - has received support from the highest levels of the UK government, as well as a boost from a landmark court decision.

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Reader's comments (1)

The parliamentary question from Clare Daly and 7 other Irish MEPs, which preceded the opening of infringement proceedings against Italy, is undoubtedly the most influential question on the Lettori issue placed to the Commission during the mandate of the present European Parliament. The section of the question which highlights the duties and responsibilities of EU membership is well worthy of citation: “Italian universities receive generous funding from the EU. Italy has received the biggest share of the Recovery Fund. Surely, the ethic of reciprocation demands that Italy obey the rule of law and implement the most recent CJEU ruling in favour of the lettori: case C 119/04.” The failure of attempts to influence the Commission to move beyond the pilot procedure, which in the case of the Lettori lasted for a decade, is well documented. If the rhetoric in MEP Clare Daly’s question influenced the opening of infringement proceedings proper, then so too did a greater professionalism on the part of Lettori organizations in their representations. In this regard, the Commission acknowledged the value of the national census of discriminatory conditions in Italian universities conducted by the unions Asso. CEL.L and FLC CGIL(the former an official complainant in the proceedings, the latter Italy’s largest trade union) and formally asked them for permission to use the census data in exchanges with the Italian authorities. The move to the reasoned opinion stage of proceedings was welcomed by Lettori all over Italy. Nonetheless, Italy’s intransigence has meant that many colleagues have retired without ever having worked under conditions of parity of treatment which should be automatic under the Treaty. While the settlements for reconstruction of career from the date of first employment on which the Commission is insisting will compensate these colleagues for the violation of their rights, it is regrettable nonetheless that under existing arrangements a member state can discriminate against non-national university teachers over the full course of their careers. - Kurt Rollin. Representative for retired colleagues. Asso.CEL.L