Second-class colleagues

Charles Lambert reflects on the struggle of foreign language teachers at Italian universities to attain respect and workers' rights

May 8, 2008

In December 2005, Sigrid Vesnaver committed suicide in Trieste. She had been born in Germany but had taught her language and literature at the University of Trieste for 12 years, was respected by her students, dedicated to her work and happily married to a colleague. Despite this, her husband is convinced that her suicide was at least partly a response to treatment she received from her employer and faculty colleagues. Sigrid was a lettore.

The category of lettore was invented in 1980 as part of a reform to streamline academic careers in Italy. Lettori were expected to teach their language and its literature, write and mark exams and assist students. What they weren't expected to do was claim the rights of their Italian colleagues. In practice, the reform excluded foreign-born language teachers from the benefits enjoyed by Italian academics. Lettori were paid substantially less than researchers or professors. They had no national insurance or pensions. They were hired on annual contracts, for a maximum of six years, after which they were said to have lost their "linguistic freshness" - as though lettori were a variety of salad leaf and language a vitamin.

When Sigrid began work, in 1992, the sell-by date had been defeated in the courts and lettori had tenure, albeit with the wages of a janitor. But in 1994 the situation took another turn for the worse. Anxious to sidestep a series of court judgments that had recognised lettori as university teachers, the Government redefined the category. The lettore was replaced by the collaboratore ed esperto linguistico (linguistic collaborator and expert, otherwise known as CEL), a job title that made no reference to teaching. What the CEL would do remained the same. Only the label changed.

Lettori were presented with a choice: to resign or to sign a contract that upped their wages (and hours) but relegated them to the category of technical-administrative workers. Many lettori chose a typically Italian solution: to accept and, simultaneously, deny the validity of the new contract. Following lawyers' advice, many lettori both signed and contested the contract. Thirteen years later, most of these cases are still in court.

I became a lettore in 1982, in Rome. The building I worked in was a box of concrete and rattling glass that would soon be declared unfit for purpose and abandoned. My first class, for beginners, had almost 100 students and was held in a room the shape of a boot. Standing at the toe, I watched what I taught being relayed to the hidden third of the class beyond the heel. Students would turn up hours before class began for a seat within sight and hearing of me. It didn't surprise me that only 10 per cent of Italian students graduated.

Twenty-five years later, I'm still a lettore. My salary hasn't increased since 1998 and is now just over half the national average. I now work a longer academic year and no longer teach people beyond pre-intermediate level; further university reform has increased the number of graduates but led to a precipitous drop in the standard of foreign languages required. I'm lucky. I'm paid when I'm sick and not expected to make up lessons "lost" through bank holidays. Numerous lettori, despite regular full-time contracts, are less fortunate.

During the past 25 years, like hundreds of colleagues, I've been sacked, redefined, demoted. I've been told by my direct superior that my category deserves to be "exterminated", and that I will be "made to pay" for arguing. I've been threatened with undefined "measures" for taking time off to attend my father's funeral. I've been promised publications that have failed to appear, through incompetence and malice, and had more prestigious publications outside Italy ignored. I'm strong, I've coped. Sigrid, finally, didn't.

In an open letter to Domenico Romeo, rector of the University of Trieste, Sigrid's husband wrote: "You have consciously exploited the lettori (...) Perhaps now, too late and in the light of two court decisions against you, you will decide to pay the lettori their dues. But my wife will no longer be able to benefit from this, now that she has been struck down by an illness greatly contributed to by your arrogance and your scorn for other people's rights."

There are two lettore battles to be fought. The most visible is for academic status and respect. But perhaps the most urgent is for basic workers' rights, routinely denied by a contemptuous academic hierarchy, and by ignorant and servile university administrations.

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