Forms of non-standard work in public administration examined

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There are around 3 million public-sector workers in Italy. Some 10% are employed on a short-term basis, mainly on fixed-term contracts (80%) or as 'socially useful' workers (around 20%), while the other forms of temporary employment such as temporary agency work, training/work contracts, and telework are less widespread. Women, who make up 60% of employees in the public sector, are also those most frequently employed on non-standard contracts (making up 60% of short-term workers). Italy stands slightly below the EU average as regards the use of such non-standard contracts in the public sector (20.5% compared with 21.9%). These are among the findings of a study published in late 2004.

As part of a projected entitled 'Cantieri', the Department of Public Administration and the Prime Minister’s Office published in late 2004 a research report conducted on their behalf by Istituto Guglielmo Tagliacarne Foundation that examines the use of 'atypical' forms of work in the civil service. Since the mid-1990s, modernisation of the Italian public administration has led to the widespread use of these forms of employment in the public sector. The report stresses that the legislative measures that have accompanied this modernisation process since decree law 39/1993 (aimed at harmonising the legal statuses of public sector and private sector workers) have been mainly intended to introduce flexible and autonomous criteria in human resources management, and thus to increase the internal flexibility of the public authorities. This has given rise to phenomena such as: the expansion of decentralised collective bargaining; the introduction of performance assessment and incentives systems; an increase in resources for training; and a differentiation of pay levels. There has been less legislative activity with regard to 'external' flexibility, especially numerical: besides the decree law 39/1993, the law now allows the use of new types of fixed-term contracts, and of particular importance is a 2000 agreement between the Public Sector Bargaining Agency (Agenzia per la Rappresentanza Negoziale delle Pubbliche Amministrazione, Aran) and the trade unions on the introduction of temporary agency work in the public administration as well (IT0008161N). The regulatory basis is that established by the 'Treu agreement' of 1997 (IT9707308F) for the private sector. but with a maximum ceiling for agency workers set at 7% of the total workforce.

EU comparisons

In order to provide a comparison with the rest of the EU, the report draws on data from the Eurostat Labour Force Survey (LFS) for 2002, which found that the overall average proportion of dependent employment made up by short-term employment relationships stands at around 19.5%. Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands are the countries with the highest proportions of short-term workers in all economic sectors, including public administration, while levels below 10% are recorded in Ireland, Austria and the UK. Italy occupies an intermediate position with 20% in the public administration, 28% in education, 15% in agriculture, 12% in health and private services, and 10% in industry.

As regards the public administration alone, the EU average is 21.9%, which is considerably higher than the percentage for industry (14.8%). Moreover, if the figures for health and education are added to the public administration, the gap widens even further, highlighting the contrast between the private sector, which mainly uses 'permanent' labour, and the public sector, for which fixed-term labour is crucial.

The report also finds that this quantitative difference between public and private is matched by a qualitative difference 'evident in the ways that short-term labour is managed and in attitudes of workers towards this kind of employment'. According to LFS surveys (which are based on the statements of individual workers) about their willingness to work on short-term bases, 42% of the interviewees working in private services on fixed-term contracts said that they did so involuntarily, while in the public administration the share was only 7.2%.

Work in the public administration

According to the annual accounting figures of the Ministry of the Economy, which the authors of the report use to analyse flexible work in the Italian civil service, there are 2,987,393 employees on private-law employment contracts, and of these 299,153 (around 10%) are on fixed-term contracts. If one also considers non-contracted workers, the total number of employees rises to 3,503,630 and the incidence of short-term workers decreases to 8.8%. The public school system accounts for the highest proportion of short-term workers in the total (14%), although it should be borne in mind that in this sector fixed-term contracts are used mainly as a channel of access to permanent employment. In the majority of cases, in fact, these are workers on the classification list waiting to obtain tenure.

As regards gender, just under 60% of workers on open-ended contracts are women, and the proportion increases even further if one considers employees on fixed-term contracts (64.5%). The highest percentages of female employment are to be found in the two largest sectors, namely health and education (respectively 70.4% and 75.5% for fixed-term contracts).

Forms of fixed-term work

Some 79.2% of short-term workers in the public administration are employed on fixed-term contracts Socially usefulworkers, a total of 59,460, make up the next largest share; work/training contracts represent 0.2%; while temporary agency workers account for 1.1% of the total; and teleworkers (157 in the country as a whole) for 0.1%. As regards temporary agency workers, however, it should be pointed out that, since the figures refer to 2001, which was only one year after the reform law enabled the civil service to use temporary agency workers, this category is still in the experimental phase. The report explains this marked predominance of fixed-term contracts - which has always been a distinctive feature of the public administration - as due to the sector’s limited capacity for internal rationalisation, with the consequence that it resorts to short-term labour in order to cope with the variability of demand for services.

While the use of fixed-term contracts is most frequent in the schools sector, 91% of 'socially useful' workers are concentrated in the regions and local authorities. The latter, however, also record the largest number of training/work contracts and of temporary agency workers.

Incidence by occupational category

Unlike in the private sector, a large proportion of workers on fixed-term contracts in the public administration are employed in medium-to-high job grades. The sectors comprising the 'traditional' public service occupations - schools, local authorities, and research - are also those where most use is made of short-term workers.

As to the distribution by type of contract, in the various sectors (and especially in the local authorities) the majority of short-term workers and those on training/work contracts are classified in the highest occupational category, temporary agency workers in the medium category, and socially useful workers in the lowest one.

Reasons for use and critical aspects

The second part of the report consists of case studies on eight public authorities that identify the reasons for using non-standard labour and critical aspects. The main reasons are to:

  • deal with unexpected contingencies arising in the activities of administrations;
  • increase the margins of discretion in human resources management;
  • recruit professionals, who would otherwise be uninterested in standard contracts, in order to foster innovation processes; and
  • support the innovation of services.

The critical aspects identified relate to the following two issues:

  • the trade-off between stability and precariousness of work, which is said to bring with it a risk of internal impoverishment whereby turnover eliminates valuable competences from the public administration;
  • the trade-off between greater freedom in the management of resources and the difficulty of integrating them into the organisation.


As the report repeatedly stresses, the Italian public administration has little to learn from the private sector as regards the use of 'traditional' fixed-term employment contracts. Less widespread, however, is the use of more innovative instruments such as temporary agency work (which, however, is still in the experimental phase), training/work contracts, and telework (rare in the private sector as well as more widely). The characteristics of short-term employment in the public administration differ with respect to the private sector in three main ways: (a) the lower level of willingness by workers to be employed on these kinds of contracts; (b) the frequent use of these contracts as a channel for entry into permanent employment; and (c) the medium-to-high occupational profile of short-term employees.

Finally, it should be borne in mind that the already large number of atypical workers revealed by the report represent only a part of the overall total of atypical workers employed by the public administration. Especially in local authorities a great deal of use is also made of 'coordinated freelance' workers (IT0308304F), who are not considered in this report for methodological reasons. (Edoardo della Torre, IRES Lombardia)

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