“No Return” from Italian Labor and Pension Reforms: An Insider View Back at Italian Government Policies by Marco Leonardi. A New Book, an Author Summary and Interview.

Marco Leonardi, economic advisor of two prime ministers in the Italian government from 2014 to 2018, has just published a new book on his experience in office during the Italian labor market reforms and the threatened future perspectives of those changes:

The hijacked reforms: why there is no coming back from labor and pension reform. Le Riforme Dimezzate, EGEA 2018 (in Italian).

Here you get an authentic summary with additional insights directly from the author!

Italy has passed three important reforms in the past four years—of the labor market, of the pension system and the introduction of a universal measure against poverty. All these reforms are already being undone, and yet this book explains, from the perspective of someone who worked within the Prime Minister’s policy unit, why there should not be any coming back from the main changes in the labor market and in the pension system.  

The author – The book – The Interview

The author

Marco Leonardi

Former Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister of the Italian Government and Full Professor of Economics at the University of Milan, Italy. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics and spent visiting periods at MIT, Georgetown and Berkeley. His research interests are in labor economics, inequality and education.

The book

To buy the book

“In this book I describe the birth of labor market reform from within the policy unit of the Prime Minister’s Office. In addition, I discuss two other major reforms undertaken in the past four years: the pension reform and the introduction of a universal measure against poverty. I approach these topics from both the political (how and why certain policy decisions were taken) and the technical perspective. I refer to the many (at times difficult) relations between the government and other administrations, as well as the unions, and the lengthy political and administrative process required to enact a law, from the first parliamentary draft up to the implementation of the software to request the new subsidy online (in the case of the new subsidy for the poor). No law produces real effects until the moment it is “online,” and several steps are required to reach that point. Very often the laws are ineffective because their implementation is flawed, and a policy unit’s job is to drive  the laws through their implementation process.

Marco Leonardi

The most important reform has been the labor market reform (called the “Jobs Act”). This reform is recognized internationally because it was adopted amid the international debate on “flexsecurity” and the increasing protection of the open-ended contract (or single contract).

During the 1990s there was considerable continuity in the employment protection legislation of OECD countries, with one major exception: the deregulation of fixed-term contracts and other non-standard labor relationships. Particularly in Southern Europe, changes in labor market policy consisted mainly of measures aimed at introducing “flexibility at the margin,” that is, making the utilization of non-permanent contracts more loosely regulated while leaving the discipline of permanent employment unchanged. Flexibility at the margin, however, amplified the two-tier nature of labor markets, raising concerns over the risk of labor market “dualism” or “segmentation.” Triggered by these concerns, public opinion and policy-makers have repeatedly stressed the importance of searching for “an appropriate balance between flexibility and security” (the so-called “flexsecurity,” as pointed to by the European Commission in multiple documents).

The Jobs Act marks a stark change with respect to the approach to flexibility at the margin by reducing firing costs for permanent employment and by making them both (a) predictable ex ante and (b) increasing according to the worker’s tenure within the firm. By doing so, the Jobs Act aims at reducing dualism in the labor market, fostering human capital accumulation, increasing job mobility to cope with structural adjustment, and favoring workers’ protection “in the market.”

The most controversial aspect of the reform has certainly been the abolition of the possibility of a worker’s reinstatement (“reintegro”) after illegitimate dismissal for economic motives. This provision is limited to contracts signed after the reform (March 7, 2015) and entails a drastic limitation to the possibility of reinstatement, even in case of disciplinary dismissal. This substantial uniformity of firing costs for both disciplinary and economic cases is necessary to curb the incentive to surreptitiously justify dismissals so that they allow for reinstatement, an outcome that would have certainly increased the number of cases litigated in court. For consistency, the ability to reinstate workers has also been excluded for collective dismissals, as they have in essence an economic motivation. The abolition of the possibility of reinstatement has certainly given birth to a clear-cut reform, a fact that has been welcomed by international investors. Besides the new rules on firing costs, generous employment subsidies were introduced to incentivize the use of open-ended contracts.

Another qualifying aspect of the reform scheme is the introduction of a fast track for the settlement of dismissals (“conciliazione rapida”). The aim is to promote consensual resolution of disputed terminations (as well as other possible disputes). Contrary to other proposals for a “single contract” with increasing firing costs, which would have introduced non-appealable compensation, the reform scheme embraces the fast-track settlement model introduced by the German and French employment protection legislations. The latter, though, are different from the solution adopted in the Italian Jobs Act as they don’t bind the court to award compensation according to a predetermined schedule (which in the Jobs Act amounts to two months for each year of contract tenure, up to a maximum of 24 months).

Unfortunately, this feature of the reform was declared illegitimate after three years, in spring 2018, by the Italian Constitutional Court, and therefore today the reforms are “dimezzate” (or “hijacked”: the title of the book refers to the reversal of many reforms under the new government, of which this case is  among the most serious).

The success of the reform is measured by the reduction of court litigation in cases of dismissal (which was reduced by 80%, but unfortunately began to rise again after the decision of the Constitutional Court), and by the shortening of the amount of time young workers spend in temporary contracts (that is, the average length of the initial part of one’s career regulated by fixed-term contracts) and the resulting share of permanent hiring among total hires. The expected substitution of fixed-term contracts unfortunately has not happened: in 2014, roughly 70% of hiring was through fixed-term contracts, and only 17% open-ended; in 2015 and 2016, the share of open-ended contracts increased considerably, but in 2018, when the generous employment subsidies ended, the share of new hiring in open-ended contracts went back to the 2014 levels.

We made a mistake in allowing the coexistence of a very liberal regime for fixed-term contracts and of the new open-ended contract with increasing protection. Employers are reluctant to hire on open-ended contracts, and if left with the easy outlet of fixed-term contracts, they will not change their preferences. Furthermore, after having established a national system of active labor market policies to favor the reallocation of workers (after 20 years of debate, Italy finally has a national agency and a common measure to manage active labor market policies across 20 regions), we were too slow in the implementation process; as a result, public opinion has become aware of the more liberal regime on firings but not the new policy of support through active labor market policies.

While much of the reform process is now in reversal, when these very incisive labor market reforms were introduced they faced no opposition and Italy enjoyed four continuous years of employment growth (which has now been interrupted under the new government).

Further details of the labor market reforms and my suggestions regarding future action can be found in the interview below. Additional information on some of the other reforms, including pensions, wage bargaining and measures against poverty, can be found in the book, only available currently in Italian.”

The interview

GLO: What were the essential elements of the Italian labor market reforms?

Marco Leonardi: The main policy tools of the Jobs Act (and the main reversals under the new government since June 2018) can be summarized as follows:

First, “Contratto a tutele crescenti,” i.e., the open-ended contract for new hires (from March 7, 2015), which eliminates the possibility of a worker’s reinstatement after illegitimate dismissal for economic motives (the so-called “article 18”)  and embeds increasing monetary compensation in the case of separation. In this respect the Jobs Act marks a stark change with respect to the approach of flexibility at the margin (i.e., the tendency to liberalize the use of fixed-term contracts and leave open-ended contracts untouched by reforms) by reducing firing costs for permanent employment and by making them both predictable ex ante and increasing according to the worker’s tenure within the firm (two months for every month of tenure, starting from a minimum of four months and up to a maximum of 24 months). The Jobs Act is an example of “flexsecurity” in practice: it reduces dualism in the labor market and favors workers’ protection “in the market.”

Recently (in June 2018) the Constitutional Court declared illegitimate the rigid link between tenure and months of compensation in case of illegitimate firing, thus restoring the full discretion of judges in determining  the amount of compensation (this will make firing costs uncertain again and the hiring permanent workers less convenient).

Recently (in June 2018) the Constitutional Court declared illegitimate the rigid link between tenure and months of compensation in case of illegitimate firing, thus restoring the full discretion of judges in determining  the amount of compensation (this will make firing costs uncertain again and the hiring permanent workers less convenient).

Second, restrictions on self-employment arrangements (“co.co.co.,” “co.co.pro.,” etc.) used in the past to hire dependent workers while saving on both firing costs and social security contributions. In the three years during which the reforms were applied (2015–2018) we witnessed an increase in dependent employment and a decrease in the number of self-employed workers (from a record share of 25% of total employment): most of them took up a fixed-term contract but some of them transitioned to an open-ended contract, exploiting the very generous tax break for open-ended contracts activated in 2015 and 2016. Under the new government this trend has been reversed by a combination of three factors: the limits set by the new government on fixed-term contracts; the sentence of the Constitutional Court which has rendered dependent permanent employment contracts less convenient; and new tax breaks exclusively for the self-employed, which will soon cause the composition of employment to revert to a large share of self-employed.

Third, the reform of unemployment benefits, which have been extended both in terms of eligibility criteria and maximum coverage length, and the concurrent reduction of the short-time work compensation scheme that subsidizes employers that reduce hours of work during a temporary period of falling demand. The unemployment benefit reform aims to make benefits more generous and long-lasting and to include those with discontinuous or uneven employment histories. The reform of 2015 extended the benefits period to exactly half the number of weeks of contribution, up to 24 months. Employees can activate their individual right to a benefit if they have contributed for at least 13 weeks over the previous four years; this criterion has significantly relaxed the contributions requirement and has increased the number of potential beneficiaries to more than 95% of the employed population. The current government has not touched the benefits reform, but it has gone back to a generous regime of subsidies for firms that reduce hours of work. A generous short-time work scheme with loose rules on contributions risks keeping “zombie” firms alive for too long and keeping workers attached to them with little incentive to search for a new job.

Finally, fourth: Reform of active labor market policies, with the establishment of a national agency to coordinate the work of the regions (which have the competence over active labor market policies) and of a “re-training and placement voucher” (i.e., a voucher for placement services provided by both public and private operators), which introduces a quasi-market approach in active labor market policies. Unfortunately, the reform of active labor market policies never actually took off. The popular referendum, which should have moved the competence from the regions to the central state, failed, and the regions are jealous of their autonomy, with the result that the performance of the services is very patchy across Italy.

GLO: What are your recommendations for effective and successful labor reform policies?

Marco Leonardi:  Use your political capital fast on your priorities, compensate unpopular reforms with popular ones and spend money to make reforms effective.

First, when you win an election, you may want to use your political capital immediately on your priorities before it is depleted. I think that the absence of strikes during the reform of the labor market was due to the “surprise” effect. Unions were prudent and waited to see what a young new leader of the center-left would bring about. If you aim at important issues (such as removing article 18) you may hope the reforms will endure, but you should expect that the next government will at least want to change the names of things in order to get credit for them.

Second, compensate for unpopular reforms with popular ones. We compensated for firing cost reforms with more unemployment benefits and active labor market policies. Unfortunately, we did not do enough on active labor market policies and we got the timing wrong: active labor market policies should have come prior to firing cost reform, because first you offer the carrot and then the stick and because active labor market policies require a long implementation period and the interaction of various actors: public employment services, the regional governments and private employment agencies.

Third, spend money to make reforms effective. We accompanied the abolition of article 18 with two dedicated measures in the 2015 budget law: (a) a three-year tax break for social security contributions, and (b) a corporate tax (IRAP) cut on labor costs applicable only to permanent contracts. This meant creating a cost wedge between permanent and temporary contracts. Conventional wisdom has it that one of the best ways to make the former more appealing is to make it cheaper than the latter. A generous tax break made a difference by incentivizing the use of permanent contracts and encouraged the perception that the reform was working.

GLO: What is your advice for the current phase of anti-reform sentiments?

Marco Leonardi: There could be two reasons why people seem to be adverse to reforms in many countries. The first might be because the reforms did not work or because they did not work for all in the same way. To make reforms work we need to focus on implementation: you may do less, but what you do must affect people’s lives in a simple way. Politicians often forget that somebody must take care of all the details of the implementation. Let’s take the example of a new measure against poverty for which the beneficiaries must fill in a new request module. Somebody must follow all the administrative processes that bring the law into effect, from the first parliamentary draft up to the implementation of the software to request the new subsidy online. No law produces real effects until the moment it is “online,” and there are several steps that must be taken to achieve this, including the involvement of the many administrations that have to do with the measure at various steps. Very often the laws are ineffective because their implementation is flawed, and a policy unit’s job is to watch over the laws until their implementation is complete.

The second issue regards the distribution of benefits. Many reforms are perceived as targeted at a few people rather than at everyone. In our time, when information is available to everybody through many of the same channels (TV and social media), it is important to stress the redistributive characteristics of all policy measures. In our case, the reform of the labor market occurred concurrently with a significant increase in the number of employed people (probably in part due to the reform itself), and yet people perceived the precariousness of the new jobs that had been created rather than their number. We should have highlighted more the redistributive feature of the reform (more people having a chance to find a job) rather than merely the increase in the number of those employed.

GLO: Thank you very much. (Questions by Klaus F. Zimmermann)

Pre-publication of a GLO post (glabor.org).


Klaus F. Zimmermann & Marco Leonardi

Ends;

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