The Italian Work Ethic

Me: “I’m sure Italians are very hardworking people!”

Italian: “Don’t be silly, all the hardworking Italians are already in the U.S.”

After I announced my move to Italy and the initial excitement had subsided, the jokes started rolling in about the work ethic of Italians and southern Europeans in general. I reassured myself that I’d be living in northern, rather than southern Italy, and surely it would be nice to take a break from the frenetic pace of American work habits? I mean, who needs to run errands between the hours of 12:30 and 3:30 pm anyway? (Most Italian businesses are closed closed in the afternoons, on Sundays, and often on Saturdays and Mondays as well.)

Anyway, I try to keep an open mind and not simply exaggerate stereotypes, but had to lol (with chagrin) at the NYT’s latest article on Italian work culture, “Fiat Pushes Work Ethic at Italian Plant.” Read it and weep:

Even some workers here in Pomigliano, Fiat’s lowest-producing plant, complain of ingrained bad habits, citing peers who call in sick to earn money while working another job or skip work with a fake doctor’s note — especially when the local soccer team is playing.

Now, fresh from rescuing Chrysler in the United States, Sergio Marchionne of Fiat is pushing these workers to be more devoted to their jobs, mirroring a larger effort by the government to improve Italy’s competitiveness and reduce its debt through austerity measures.

But shifting a culture toward work and closing the divide with Italy’s northern neighbors won’t be easy. Embedded for generations here — and on other parts of Europe’s often-sweltering southern rim — is a lifestyle that values flexibility for workers.

To some, Fiat is drawing the curtain on a humane working life.

“He wants to impose American-style standards,” Nello Niglio, a factory worker, said of Mr. Marchionne’s requirements to work longer hours and cut back on absences. “But too much work is going to kill our workers.”

Oh No, American-style standards! Pomigliano is near Naples, in the southern half of Italy, where poverty levels, unemployment and mafia strength are much higher than northern Italy. When I jokingly asked (northern) Italians why they don’t simply secede and leave their poorer southern cousins behind, they replied seriously that the separatist party Lega Nord was effectively trying to do just that.

And in case you think Fiat is trying to make too many changes at once, they do acknowledge the importance of Italy’s national past-time:

Just last month, Fiat erected large television screens inside the factory when Italy played in the World Cup to encourage employees to come to work, said Mr. Nacco, the longtime worker there. Still, some people did not show up. “And Fiat was paying us to watch the game,” he said.

The productivity of GM workers is starting to look pretty good right about now.

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