Throughout Italy, thousands of teenage Italian school students protested their work placements. They suggest that these placements provide almost no on-the job training, and also enable employers to exploit lax laws for free labour. Student unions have been organizing the protests through social media, and have claimed that over 200,000 students took part— although the claim cannot be substantiated, as no independent organization has given another estimate. These large protests took place in 70 cities throughout Italy, including Rome, Naples, Milan, and Salerno. According to Italy’s Student Network, the largest student union in Italy, 95% of schools and an estimated 900,000 students participate in work-experience schemes in the last three years of their secondary education. These “schemes” refer to when employers claim to provide real-life work experience for students, but in actuality result in students waiting tables or fetching coffee for their superiors for no pay.
The students are demanding that the government fulfill its promise to create laws defining the status of students doing their work experience, and create a code of ethics for companies who use them as well. The Student Network National Coordinator Giammarco Manfreda told the BBC that “we want work placements that provide real alternative training and quality for all. Italy continues to lack rules defining who can or cannot offer work experience.” He further argues that many organisations provide work experience that does not involve any training at all. Many of the signs at the rallies read, “We are students, not merchandise,” and, “Students have a defect – they know how to use their intellect.”
Many of the work experience programs, which are comparable to internships in the U.S. and U.K., are in transnational corporations such as McDonalds, which takes roughly 10,000 students per year. Students are critical of the program though, since it often leads to the students working as cashiers instead of earning experience in higher-level business positions.
The program originally began under former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in July 2015, as an attempt to slow the “brain drain,” or loss of educated Italians to other countries. Italy has long suffered from high emigration rates among the younger generation, who find it difficult to integrate into a workforce that is still primarily populated by the older generation. Additionally, young Italians are further discouraged by the staggeringly high unemployment rate of 11% in the country—which is only second to Greece’s unemployment rate. This “brain drain” is thought by economists to significantly contribute to Italy’s low growth rate of 1%, because there is no incentive for young entrepreneurs to remain in Italy and therefore, no Italian innovation.
Italian Education Minister Valeria Fedeli has defended the government’s work experience program, claiming that it provides students with, “complementary skills that enable them to face the future with more knowledge.” However, despite her defense of the program, she has agreed to attempt to raise the quality of work provided to the students, but has not elaborated on how she plans to induce this change.
Students worldwide have often been taken advantage of by organisations in their pursuit of gaining real-world experience to become marketable to employers later in their career. Italy’s situation is perhaps trickier, however, given that there are no pre-existing laws defending students from institutions which claim to provide work experience, but in actuality do not. The Italian government does not check if students are gaining useful skills, and therefore are allowing students to be taken advantage of. If Italy has any hope of keeping the younger generation in the country and raising its economic growth rate to match the other European powers, it must protect the rights of the younger generation. While it may be difficult to reform laws to guarantee the rights of student workers at their placements, it is essential to do such in order ensure Italy’s future economic growth and prosperity.