Employment Discrimination against Migrant workers in the Italian labour maket

Migrants from Western Africa selling umbrellas on the central plaza in Torino, Italy
Teaser Bild Untertitel
Migrants from Western Africa selling umbrellas on the central plaza in Torino, Italy


by Emanuele Galossi and Maria Mora

This article is a summary of a wider research carried out in 2006/2007 within the Equal LEADER project1  on employment discrimination against migrant workers in Italy. The importance of this research lies in the belief that the integration of new citizens is closely linked to a correct inclusion in the labour market, which must be achieved by respecting equal opportunities, fighting against illegal and undeclared work, protecting workers as well as containing the brain waste phenomenon by recognising qualifications and giving access to vertical mobility.

It is common knowledge that the Italian labour market continuously absorbs and needs a new migrant labour force2, especially in some sectors, however not everybody knows the real working and employment conditions of migrants. Discrimination and racism against migrant workers, who are often silent victims of these phenomena, are even more obscure and only known generically through the news or direct experience.

This research shows that both direct and indirect discrimination are widespread; discrimination takes place when entering the labour market and also while working. Besides simple discrimination, multiple discrimination occurs when different factors are combined: nationality, gender, length of stay in Italy, age, religion and so on. Finally, other relevant forms of discrimination against foreign workers by colleagues and employers are racism and xenophobia.

First of all, the research shows that there are different forms of discrimination in the labour market which can occur during the various macro-phases of the work cycle: access, conditions and type of workplace, terms for resignation of employment. As for the first macro-phase, besides various legal constraints, there is still strong reticence about “allowing” immigrants to access prestigious and highly skilled jobs or jobs for which there is a large pool of Italian nationals. As a matter of fact, the majority of foreigners, even those with a high level of human capital, enter in the low-wage labour market.

In this way, “dequalification” of the immigrant workforce adds up not only to brain wasting but also compromises the correct functioning of the labour market, because it fuels fragmentation processes. “Dequalification” reaches particularly high levels among women, who experience discrimination on the grounds of both nationality and gender. It is clear that such mechanisms work in the same way with other types of discrimination such as age, disability or religion, triggering in this way multiple discrimination processes.

The double discrimination against foreign women probably is the most potent. This survey illustrates that the condition of immigrant women in the Italian labour market is quite complicated. The first remark is about horizontal occupational segregation. As a matter of fact, women seem to be concentrate even more than men in a few occupational sectors. Care and housework are usually the only job opportunities for the majority of female workers who decide to leave their country to work.

Moreover, in these sectors there can be conditions that further discriminate against workers. There are no opportunities for career advancement and undeclared work is frequent. In this sector it is very hard to unionise workers, working hours and conditions are extremely flexible and often depend on the needs of the employer; moreover, wages are often quite low and social security and public assistance contributions are minimal (if met at all).

In Italy, discrimination in the workplace and unequal working conditions seem to answer to a more comprehensive process of segmentation and precarisation of the labour market; this process leads to lower protection for foreign employees who constitute a particularly “vulnerable” group of labour.

The most common forms of discrimination revealed by this research concern:

  • The recognition of qualifications: A gap between foreign workers potential and professional achievement has been found; this can be ascribed in part to the difficulties immigrants find in the recognition of university and professional qualifications, especially if these have been obtained in the country of origin.
  • Job level: The majority of foreigners work at the lowest levels, even though they actually carry out tasks that, according to the respective collective agreements in force, fall into higher job levels.
  • Compliance of terms of contract and working conditions: Among the forms of discrimination identified these should be emphasized: an excessive use of overtime work which is usually paid “cash in hand”. The use of foreign workers to carry out the hardest tasks or to cover less desirable shifts (night, holiday, weekend shifts etc.). Failure to pay or irregular payment of the severance indemnity (TFR), which is often not paid out to workers. Moreover, the gap between wages of native and immigrant workers is still wide and growing.
  • End of work contracts: The research shows there are differences in the enforcement of employment laws for native and foreign workers in various sectors, especially for dismissal.
  • Training and Security. Investment in training and security is the first element to be neglected by firms; this happens in particular in those sectors where there is a higher presence of foreign labour. As we have found out, the condition of immigrant workers is quite adverse in a labour market where labour costs tend to be reduced more and more as a solution to help enterprises gain competitiveness.

Finally, discrimination can also be found in professional trajectories; this mirrors the phenomena just mentioned and it is a process where the reticence of the native population about a genuine equal opportunity system plays an important role.

Immigrants who are less vulnerable to discrimination seem to be those with more skills and knowledge. The work context and the nationality of the worker seem to be more important for interaction with the external environment; these two elements play an important role in the integration into the labour market. The original economic and social backgrounds as well as previous experience gained during the migration process also play an active role. The knowledge of Italian is considered important not only to combat discriminatory attitudes of various kinds, but also to facilitate inclusion and relations in the surrounding environment.

Risks linked to unemployment

During stagnation periods and market contraction, the weakest social groups like immigrants and unskilled workers are destined to suffer the consequences of the downsizing of labour and are more exposed to risks such as unemployment and dismissal. Social exclusion and the high number of immigrants among long term unemployed people show the economic, social and political costs linked to discrimination3. Not surprisingly, parallel to the growth of employed people there has been an increase of unemployed people.

Moreover, the incipient tertiarisation of advanced economies and the increase of competitiveness require more qualifications and selection of human resources. This process might penalise immigrants, who usually work in traditional sectors that are more affected by changes linked to globalisation and where more strategies of delocalisation are adopted4. Unemployment entails a high risk of marginalisation, especially for immigrants, and a consequent regression in the integration and assimilation process. A higher exposure to unemployment is indicative of the perpetration of discriminatory practices in working conditions.

Objective and subjective elements in discriminatory processes

Some interviewees reveal that there is self-discrimination among immigrants; some believe it is “normal” and inevitable that they are assigned certain kinds of jobs. This seems to explain and to be fitting for many cases concerning the professional integration of immigrants who have the following needs: work as a need and work to ensure income to start and/or continue the migratory project, temporarily resigning to skills acquired during previous jobs and/or studies, while awaiting better opportunities.

In fact, we discovered that both the so called “intermediate witnesses” 5 and workers feel there is a gap between foreign workers potential and their achievement, at least regarding access to work. This is also due to the difficulties concerning the recognition of university and professional qualifications which inevitably lead to the “occupational segregation” of foreigners in some labour market sectors.

The fact that immigrants have unskilled jobs usually with low wages has some consequences. Among those, the most serious is no doubt the housing problem: the high rent prices imply that often flats are shared by too many tenants; this leads to a decrease in the value of houses and the widespread practice of real estate agencies that do not rent houses to foreigners. As a result,“discrimination by delegation” takes place, that is to say foreigners face major barriers in finding a house (also irrespective of their economic possibilities) because landlords “delegate” the task not to rent their house to foreigners to agencies6.

Immigration, discrimination and collective bargaining

Finally, our survey demonstrates that, in spite of formal equality sanctioned by law and collective agreements, working conditions of immigrants employed by Italian firms remain poor in every way. Discrimination at work – in the labour market as well in the workplace - is in fact critical and long-lasting; public institutions and other bodies that play an important role in protecting democracy and even have a pedagogical function within firms and among workers such as trade unions should solve these problems.

Among the regulations that establish a protection scheme for foreign workers, collective bargaining and more generally industrial relations deserve a specific mention. In fact, in these areas some primary conditions may exist in order to make anti-discrimination norms established by the Community and national legislator effective. Unfortunately, until now the same trade union admits that “the bargaining experience has not been very influential”. This is a constraint that would concern all levels of the Italian system of industrial relations – on the national, company and local levels.

There is no doubt that the scarce spread of contract clauses concerning the specific features of working and living conditions of immigrant workers also reveals a difficulty and a limited ability of trade unions to take concrete action, notwithstanding the considerable effort to try to represent, offer protection to and integrate immigrant workers in trade unions.

Ultimately, the importance of this study lies in the belief and the evidence that the integration of new citizens is closely linked to their correct inclusion in the labour market, which must be achieved by respecting equal opportunities and fighting illegal and undeclared work, protecting workers in every way, containing brain waste processes through the recognition of qualifications and giving access to vertical mobility.


1 Progetto LEADER - Lavoro e occupazionE senzA Discriminazioni Etniche e Religiose, IT-S2-MDL-272.
2  Zanfrini, L., “Learning by programming”, in Secondo rapporto sui fabbisogni professionali delle imprese e la politica di programmazione dei flussi migratori, Unioncamere-Fondazione ISMU, Angeli, Milano, 2001.
3 Cfr. Allasino, E., Reyneri, E. ; Venturini, A.; Zincone, G., La discriminazione dei lavoratori immigrati nel mercato del lavoro in Italia, International Migration Papers 67 – I, ILO, 2004.
4 Per approfondimenti vedi Frey, L.,  Livraghi, R., Venturini, A., Righi, A., and Tronti, L., The jobs and effects of migrant workers in Italy: Three essays, International Migration Papers II, Ginevra, 2005.
5  By “intermediate witnesses” we mean trade unions representatives, employers, people working in employment services and members and representatives of non governamental organisations (NGOs) interviewed during this research.
6  Incidentally, we notice that citizens who migrate alone encounter difficulties in renting a house but even more serious problems must be faced in case of family reunifications.

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Maria Mora and Emanuele Galossi are researchers at the Institute for Economic and Social Research) the research institute of CGIL, the biggest Italian trade union confederation. Their activities are focused on migrations and antidiscrimination policies.