Editor: In 2002, AdjunctNation writer Michael Gerace caught up with David Petrie and interviewed him. You can read that interview here. Petrie is still fighting for equal pay and equal treatment for hundreds of non-Italians who teach foreign languages at Italian universities throughout the country. You can read complete coverage of the legal battle between Petrie, his colleagues, and the Italian government here.
by Leah Hyslop
It is difficult to imagine the kind of reception that David Petrie gets from his Italian colleagues when he goes to work in the morning. One suspects it isn’t too friendly. The Scottish-born expat has worked for the University of Verona for nearly thirty years, where he lectures in English language. But for almost as long he has been teaching, Petrie has also been caught up in a bitter war with the Italian university system, fighting against the discrimination that he claims he and his fellow foreign lecturers suffer every single day.
“Foreign lecturers get a very raw deal,” says Petrie (left), who founded ALLSI, the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy, in 1997. “Know as lettori, we are given extremely low salaries, denied the right to be considered for promotions, and virtually hidden away. It’s a system of apartheid – discrimination based on nationality. And despite the fact that we’ve been to the European Court of Justice seven times, despite the fact that the universities have been identified as committing discrimination on more than one occasion, it’s still happening.”
The roots of the lecturers’ struggle go back to the 80s, when the category of lettori or “foreign language teachers” was created. When Petrie became a lecturer in this period, lettori were paid a much lower salary, were hired on annual contracts renewable for a maximum of five times and their salaries could not be higher than a part-time associate professor.
By the early 1990s, he and his fellow lecturers had twice petitioned the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which eventually ruled that Italy was infringing its obligations. Instead of delivering equal pay and equal conditions, however, Italy passed a law downgrading the status of the lettori to collaboratori ed esperti linguistici or “linguistic collaborators,” also known as CELS. In practice, this put foreign language lecturers on the same level as technicians and administrative staff, a classification that Petrie says is laughable.
“In 1987, a local court judged my work to be equivalent to that of an associate professor,” says Petrie, “but that ruling and pay scale are not applied. Foreigners do most of the work in these departments, but I earn about 1,400 euros a month after tax, while my boss, who teaches about two hours 15 minutes a week, nets closer to 4,000.
“In 2004, the ECJ finally ruled that Italy had set up an appropriate framework for how lettori should be treated but according to a sample we did in 2009, 83 per cent of foreign professors in Italy are still being denied their rights.”
What the Italian universities do, says Petrie, is simply “disappear” the significance of the work done by lettori. “Our names vanish from faculty handbooks; then our names disappear from the door. When I started challenging the University of Verona over its attitude, my internal phone disappeared. And a few days later, I was told to move to a smaller office because the office contained asbestos, but my Italian colleagues are still there.
“That office, accessed through a basement door, was practically a ghetto, and it was where all the foreign lecturers were put. We later took photos of it to the European Parliament who passed a resolution condemning it as a human rights abuse.”
The worst aspect of the struggle is how unsubtle the discrimination is. “I’ve put in applications for higher positions, and been told that because I’m not Italian, and my qualifications aren’t Italian my application is inadmissible and I won’t get it. If they were more careful, they’d at least pretend I was being considered, but they really don’t care.”
Petrie estimates there about 400 lettori affected by discrimination, and says that though a framework does exist to challenge the universities, taking up arms is in practice difficult. When he, along with over 100 other lecturers, refused to sign a CEL contract, he was fired for insubordination, and was not reinstated by the Italian Supreme Court until nearly four years later.
In January 2010, the University of Padua attracted huge media attention when it was ordered to pay £300,000 in backpay to a group of foreign lecturers, but Petrie says the group’s struggles are far from over.
“Padua claims it doesn’t have the money to pay them, so we don’t know if they’ll ever receive all they’re owed. And even if lecturers are awarded backpay for missed salary increases, they actually have to go to court again to recuperate the next batch of arrears and argue that they deserve a higher rate in future, while Italians are automatically paid increments.”
So why is Italy allowing such reckless discrimination? “They say things like they want their foreign language teachers to retain ‘the freshness of the language’, so it’s necessary that they aren’t obliged to keep us for long,” says Petrie.
“But I think the answer really lies in the elite status that academics have in Italy. If you look at the Italian Lower House and Senate, you’ll see a disproportionate number who came up through universities. Academics here are a real ruling hegemony, and they don’t want foreigners involved.”
So what is the next step for ALLSI? Various UK ministers have taken up the mantle of the lecturers’ cause, most recently Chris Bryant at the start of the year, and Petrie is hopeful that the Coalition will also support them. He has already paid a visit to the Foreign Office. David Liddington, the minister for Europe, has agreed to meet him on October 28, 2010 and he says he hopes to spread awareness of what is going on in Italy in his home country.
“What makes me angriest is that when Italian people apply for teaching jobs in Britain, they aren’t discriminated against – in fact, because they actually know the language as a native, they’d be considered a good candidate. I just wonder how shocked people would be if they knew that if their son or daughter tried to work in Italy, they’d meet with blatant discrimination based on nationality.
“This discrimination breaks every European rule, and there’s no other case like it in Europe. What I want to know is will the British Government put up with this any longer?”
Visit ALLSI’s website here.
Originally printed in The Telegraph. Used here with permission.