The snail's pace progress of EU justice

Despite European Commission pilot proceedings against Italy, the snail’s pace progress of EU justice in tackling discrimination against non-national teaching staff in Italian universities means the case is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, explains Henry Rodgers.

By Henry Rodgers

Henry Rodgers has published extensively on discrimination against Lettori. He teaches English at "la Sapienza" University Rome.

02 Apr 2021

The snail’s pace progress of EU justice in tackling discrimination against non-national teaching staff in Italian universities (Lettori) persists to this day. Though European Commission pilot proceedings against Italy remain open, less than loyal cooperation from the Italian authorities means that the case is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Non-national teaching staff can complete their whole careers in the Italian university system without ever having worked under conditions of parity of treatment. Italy’s intransigence means that under existing arrangements it can continue to evade its Treaty obligations to non-national workers with impunity.

The current European Commission pilot proceedings seek to compel Italy to implement a 2006 ECJ ruling in a Commission enforcement case taken for evasion of an earlier infringement ruling case, in its turn taken for non-implementation of earlier ECJ rulings which date back to 1989

What the human cost of this discrimination has entailed emerges from the story of Anne Marie McGowan. From Paisley in Scotland, Anne took up a position teaching English language and literature in the academic year in 1982 at the “La Sapienza “University in Rome, Early into her career she became pregnant. The right of Italian women to the statutory five months of maternity leave was withheld her. It was to be withheld her again in her subsequent two pregnancies.

Anne therefore had to continue working right into her ninth month. Of her first pregnancy Anne recalls that she literally went from a thesis examination session at the university to the delivery room of the hospital to give birth. Each time after giving birth she immediately returned to work, employing baby-sitters to look after her newborn.

Anne was employed under an annual contract with provision for renewal. Under Italian labour law regularly renewed contracts must be transformed into open-ended contracts and workers given the same security and rights as long-term employees. That this right should be extended to non-national workers was established by a Spanish national Pilar Allué, in her cases before the ECJ. Legislated for subsequently in a 1995 Italian labour law, her victories brought full maternity rights to her colleagues. They did not, however, bring full parity of treatment.

"Non-national teaching staff can complete their whole careers in the Italian university system without ever having worked under conditions of parity of treatment. Italy’s intransigence means that under existing arrangements it can continue to evade its Treaty obligations to non-national workers with impunity"

To cut the cost of the Allué outcome the 1995 law reclassified the Lettori as linguistic experts in a new employment relationship that severed all links to the previous years of service, rights to seniority payments and the parameter of part-time associate professor as a yardstick for determining salaries. It was to have these withheld acquired rights restored that the Commission took and won subsequent cases against Italy.

Under pressure from the Commission, Italy introduced Legge Europea 2017. The wording of the law makes a virtue of the belated provision of funds to end Lettori litigation before local courts for breaches of EU law that date back to the 1980s. The law is open to alternative readings. Tor Vergata University, where Anne was employed when she retired, read it to mean that their liability to her for her acquired rights dated back only to 2017. Thus after 40 years teaching in Italian universities Anne retired this year without ever having worked under the parity of treatment conditions to which the Treaty entitles her.

The ongoing battle for parity of treatment pits a powerful member state against a very small group of teachers, nationals from other EU Member States working work in universities all over Italy. The odds and the setbacks so far have caused many colleagues to give up. But at “La Sapienza” University in Rome, Anne’s first employer, the formation and successes of a new representative group, Asso. CEl. L, of which I am a co-founder, has given the Lettori new hope.

Asso. CEl. L offers free membership. Freed then of the need to canvass and account for contributions, we have devoted our energies to the ongoing pilot proceedings and to securing the support of influential opinion. European Parliament President David Sassoli has written us a letter of support, while MEPs, Billy Kelleher, Clare Daly and Sean Kelly have placed a series of parliamentary questions to the Commission on the inclusion of Lettori evidence in the proceedings.

The chance appearance of my last article on this web site almost alongside a piece by Ursula von der Leyen emboldened me to write to her in the hope that despite her heavy remit she might find time for our case. Subsequently, President von der Leyen was to take up the case with the Commissioner responsible, Nicolas Schmit.

"The chance appearance of my last article on this web site almost alongside a piece by Ursula von der Leyen emboldened me to write to her in the hope that despite her heavy remit she might find time for our case. Subsequently, President von der Leyen was to take up the case with the Commissioner responsible, Nicolas Schmit"

Our association has also been registered by the Commission as an official complainant and, as such, can contribute documentation to the file. Though the current pilot case has been open for many years, all that are needed to resolve the problem are accurate statistics of the beneficiaries of the ECJ case law and the value of the settlements due to them. The incomplete and imprecise data on these points submitted by Italy to the Commission to date is not solution-friendly and merely protracts the case.

Together with FLC CGIL; Italy’s largest trade union, we are currently conducting a national census of Lettori to provide this information. As evidence in the proceedings, we hope it leads to a resolution of the case for our working and retired colleagues, including, of course, Anne.

Since the discrimination against Italy was first referred to the ECJ in the 1980s, there have been 16 different Italian Prime Ministers. It might seem like a clutching at straw to hope that the present incumbent, Mario Draghi, might make a difference. Our association will now approach Mario Draghi and ask him to intervene.

The Italian universities continue to receive generous funding from Europe. In the allocation of the recovery fund Italy received the greatest share. By the ethic of reciprocation then Italy should at very least obey the rule of EU law. It is the hope of the non-national university teaching staff that the Draghi government will finally end the long-running discrimination against them.

Read the most recent articles written by Henry Rodgers - A lifetime of disparity of treatment

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