When out of work means out of Italy

ROME, Italy — He probably doesn't know it but Agim Zanaj has been very lucky, so far.

Since the day he arrived to Italy from Albania, in 1994, the country in which he chose to live has become steadily richer, with GDP growing more than 50 percent in the last 15 years, according to the OECD.

He has had to work hard, taking jobs most Italians didn't want. He has worked in furniture factories, water treatment plants and warehouses as a night watchman. All along, he has been an employee of the "social cooperatives" that rent workers to businesses as they need them and keep part of their pay.

He and his brother, Edmond, who moved across the Adriatic Sea with him back in 1994, have been able to make a decent living in Italy. They have brought the family in from Albania and sent the kids to school. With a mortgage from a local bank, they even bought a house in 2005.

All this now seems to be over. Edmond lost his job in 2008, Agim at the end of April. Edmond's wife, who worked as house helper for an elderly woman, has been laid off too. Now the bills are piling up and even if mortgage payments are suspended — thanks to one of the government's crisis-relief measures — they will start again in six months.

(Teaching migrants Italian)

On top of that, Agim's residence permit, which allows him to live and work in Italy, won't be renewed unless he finds a new job. “Me and my brother," he said without a hint of irony, "we are thinking of going back to Albania and start a new life there.”

He won't, however, be taking the thousands of euros paid directly from his salary into a state pension fund; Italian law states that cannot be reclaimed until the worker is 65.  

The case of the Zanaj brothers is not unusual. According to an analysis on national demographics by Andrea Stuppini, an immigration expert, 77,000 foreigners lost their jobs in Italy in 2009.

Under Italian law, workers have just six months to find a new job before their status is changed to that of an illegal immigrant. 

According to Caritas, a Catholic charity, there are now 126,000 more "illegal aliens" in Italy than the year before, up by nearly 50 percent. Most of them, according to data, are former "legals" who have lost their jobs. They have chosen to stay in the country, working in the informal economy.

Others have entered the country illegally, despite toughened immigration laws and enhanced policing in the Mediterranean Sea to stop boats filled with foreigners — mainly Africans — from reaching Italian shores. Some manage to get visas for seasonal work — such as picking tomatoes in Campania or Sicily, or wine grapes during harvest — and then overstay.

“Their hope is that they will eventually land a 'real' contract, which will allow them to ask for a permit,” said Pino Gulia, who works with immigrants for Acli, a labor organization. He says some immigrants accept to pay taxes and pension contributions their employers should pay to the state, in exchange for a legal contract that gives them the right to stay.

“When you are laid off, there are endless ways to arrange things in order to get your permit renewed,” he said, noting the creativity of Italian employers and of immigrants. The problem is the money: jobs in the underground economy pay much less.

Moreover, the construction sector, where illegal immigrants are most in demand, has been hit hard by the financial crisis.

“I am not that worried about the permit,” Agim said. “The problem is the crisis: it is much worse than they say. I have looked everywhere, and there are no jobs and no money.” He is still formally an employee of the social cooperative, but he is paid only when he works. This month, he said, he worked 50 hours in total; the one before, he did not work any hours at all.

In his former company, most of the workers were foreigners just like him. They were the first ones to be shed, while the few Italians were luckier. For Gulia, "small businesses prefer to lay off immigrants first."

"It's not discrimination but rather a social necessity: the foreigners will leave, eventually, while the Italians stay, and you don't want to be pointed at in the community as 'the one who fired the Italian but kept the Cameroonian in,'" Gulia said.

For him, many of the immigrants who for now are trying to stay, making ends meet in the informal economy or with "fake jobs," will eventually leave. “Most will do this in autumn or next year, when the real impact of the crisis on the real economy will be felt.”

“We'll stay until September or October. If we don't find a job by then, we'll throw in the towel,” Agim said. "The real shock will be for my brothers' kids; they hardly speak Albanian now. Luckily, I don't have a family.”

There is a final, ironic twist in Agim's story. In his years in Italy, he has been paying pension contributions to the state worth thousands of euros. But according to Italian law, he won't be allowed to reclaim this money before he is 65, even if he leaves the country for good. According to Stuppini's analysis, the contributions of immigrants who have already left Italy are worth around 200 million euros. And this sum is bound to grow.

Agim said he didn't even know about his pension money, which is withheld automatically from his salary. "You know how it is with immigrants," he said, with calm resignation. "They take advantage of them."