Labour Inspectorate rules to secure job contracts for call centre workers

The Italian Labour Inspectorate has requested the Atesia call centre company to convert some 3,200 freelance work contracts into traditional employment contracts. A debate has subsequently developed on the current state of employment regulations and the consequences of this decision on the general use of atypical employment contracts.

Misuse of atypical contracts

Labour inspectors have been carrying out investigations at the Atesia call centre. The investigations, which focused primarily on the use of atypical employment contracts among workers, led to a final decision that obliges the company to transform some 3,200 freelance work contracts into traditional employee work contracts. Freelance contracts are recognised in Italian labour law, previously under the title of ‘employer-coordinated freelance work’ but now known as ‘project collaboration work’ (IT0501NU01). However, some employers use these contracts when a standard employment contract would be more appropriate.

In addition to regularising the posts of these workers, the Italian Labour Inspectorate has ruled that Atesia must pay wages and contributions in arrears to those who have worked in the same posts on freelance contracts since 2001. The Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (Ministero del Lavoro e delle Politiche Sociali) has therefore undertaken the task of devising measures to ease the conversion of the unlawful freelance contracts into standard subordinate employment contracts. This matter is considered to be of high priority and the Atesia case has sparked heated debate on the activities performed by call centre workers and the type of contract most suitable for them.

The approximately 4,000 Atesia workers are mainly employed at outsourced call centres operating for the Telecom and Tim telephony companies. Atesia belongs to the COS group, which in turn belongs to the AlmavivA holding company; COS is the main player in the Italian call centre sector, with around 12,000 employees and an annual turnover of €250 million. The latter company operates outsourced call centres for large companies such as the food company Barilla, the Alitalia airline, Sky broadcasting station, the telecommunications provider Wind and the National Institute for Statistics (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, ISTAT), as well as various call centre services contracted out by the public sector. Therefore, the conversion of the Atesia employment contracts would set a precedent applicable to the other companies in the COS group.

Legal regulations

From a legislative point of view, attempts have already been made to combat irregularities and abuses in the use of freelance contracts at outsourced call centres, often following complaints by the workers themselves. In-company call centres are covered by the industry-wide agreement for the sector in which the company operates.

Three main pieces of legislation apply to the specific case of the Atesia call centre:

  • In March 2004, the National Call Centre Services Association (Associazione Nazionale Servizi di Call Centre, Assocolcenter) signed a national collective agreement with the three trade union confederations: the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil). This was the first national collective agreement regulating employer-coordinated freelance contracts at outsourced call centres (IT0403203F). However, because Atesia is not a member of Assocolcenter, this agreement did not apply to them.
  • In April 2006, the trade unions and the Atesia management reached a collective company agreement, which established ‘the criteria and process of implementation of flexibility in the organisation of work’ and defined ‘procedures for contract stabilisation’. As emphasised by the General Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union (Sindacato dei Lavoratori della Conoscenza, SLC-CGIL), Emilio Miceli, this agreement is the ‘starting point for meeting some of the objections raised by the Labour Inspectorate’.
  • A recent Government Circular (No. 17/2006) has restricted the use of freelance workers to outbound activities performed by call centre operators hired for short-term promotional campaigns. The circular maintains that, in this case, the workers have ‘ample opportunity to determine beforehand the content, intensity and form of the work undertaken’. It deems the use of freelance contracts for workers supplying online customer care and assistance, or inbound activities, to be unlawful. The previous government began drafting the circular, and it was concluded in June 2006 under the supervision of the newly-appointed Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Cesare Damiano.

Reactions to ruling

The COS group has described the measures set out in the Labour Inspectorate’s ruling as ‘contradictory and disconcerting’:

They are contradictory because they are antithetical to the line taken by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy: for they do not consider the distinction drawn by the Circular of 14 June 2006 between inbound and outbound activities, nor do they respect the principle of gradual application implicit in the provision for a preliminary period of company information.

On the other hand, the Union for Atypical Workers (Nuove Identità di Lavoro, Nidil-Cgil) has emphasised that ‘the outbound activities undertaken at Atesia are not commercial campaigns of the type described by the ministerial circular; rather, they consist of research and surveys conducted for ISTAT and Unioncamere, for example. They can therefore certainly be defined as subordinate work’. Unioncamere is the Association for Italian Chambers of Commerce and it manages a research department.

COS has warned that the cost of regularising all of its contracts may require it to resort to dismissals and relocations. However, the Ministry seems to have adopted a soft approach so that the regularisation procedure is not ‘overly punitive for the company’, as it pursues the goal of ‘exposing companies which use semi-subordinate workers as if they were subordinate employees’. The Ministry therefore implements two plans of action, one consisting of regularisation, and the other of applying the Labour Inspectorate’s ruling mitigated by relief on social security contributions.

Commentary

In addition to the specific case of Atesia outlined above, a wider concern has emerged in relation to the labour Law No. 30/2003, known as Legge Biagi (IT0307204F, IT0509104F) and the greater scope for flexibility it has introduced. Therefore, in the future, it will be vital to have clear directives, for example like the abovementioned circular, on the proper use of certain contracts such as those for ‘project collaboration work’.

At the same time, the Atesia episode underlines the importance of monitoring the use of flexibility in the workplace through the Labour Inspectorate. Monitoring is essential not only within call centres but also, for instance, in the public sector, which makes frequent use of freelance contracts or other forms of atypical work. Such supervision should clarify the extent of and the reason for the misuse of some flexible measures, while laying the groundwork for more closely targeted action.

Manuela Galetto, Ires Lombardia

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