European Interests - newsletter provided by European Social, Organisational and Science Consultancy (ESOSC), Aghabullogue, Ireland. ISSN 1649-1955. Issue 1-2003

Massimo D'Angelillo, Genesis

Flexible Work in the Province of Modena (Italy) New And Old Flexibilities in the Labour Market


Flexible work in the province of Modena (Italy)




New flexible forms of work are an increasingly important component of employment in Italy, namely temporary agency work and the freelance work “coordinated” by an employer (collaborazioni coordinate continuative). The growth of atypical forms of work has attracted the attention of many political parties, prompting a series of proposals for their regulation, such as “Pacchetto Treu” in 1997 and the Libro Bianco (White Paper) during the Berlusconi government.

In what way does “atypical” work fit into the economical and social frame of a city like Modena? How do the different sectors react and what are the reasons for the growth of flexible work? Is there a link between these “new flexibilities” and the “old flexibilities” that developed in the 60s?

The present research examines the situation of employment in the city of Modena. In this area new forms of flexible work have developed through the interaction between the small and medium enterprises.

The work analyses whether the growth of these new forms of work was determined by the end of the Fordism or by the disappearance of a labour model based on dependent employment, linear careers, fixed hierarchies and a social organization that reflected the company organization.

Flexible work has economical and social implications. This study tries to analyse the meaning of the word “flexibility”: on the one hand, it has a negative connotation since people tend to associate it with the idea of job insecurity, exploitation of labour or the fragmentation of human relations. On the other hand, it has a more positive connotation since it is linked to the idea of a more flexible and dynamic society, where people “take the risk” and they are prone to accept flexible jobs because they want to improve their professional positions.

The analysis focuses on the change of the economical and social environment in the Modena area.

This survey has been carried out among some key protagonists of various economical sectors. The following interesting results emerged from the interviews:

  1. Since the 70s, the Modena economy has been reaching a high degree of flexibility and the solutions that have been implemented are different according to the sector involved: in agriculture, for example, the typical form of conto terzismo (work on commission) is quite widespread; in the mechanical sector, a network of specialized sub-contractors has developed; in the clothing industry, new small textile workshops have emerged; in the building sector, there are new forms of hiring; in the public sector, the outsourcing of specific functions is quite common and in the commercial sector new contract formulas, such as franchising, have developed. These are what D’Angelillo defines as “old flexibilities”.
  2. Self-employment played a key role in this process. Economy became more and more flexible and this change was accompanied by a dramatic transformation of dependent workers into self-employed workers and entrepreneurs: self-employed agents instead of salespersons that are employed by an employer; craftsmen instead of dependent workers in the building sector; freelance cleaners and securities guards, the outsourcing of accounting services, the growth of the contracts for public works and services instead of hiring new public servants; independent IT consultants, financial planners instead of bankers. Self-employment rate ranges from 11% in the bank sector to a 59% in the trading industry.
  3. Advantages of self-employment. Basically there are four main advantages of self-employment: first, companies can reduce and cut off their fixed costs. Second, thanks to outsourcing, companies can buy “productive results” instead of means of production. Third, external suppliers are highly specialised and skilled; and finally self-employed workers cost less in terms of social insurance contributions than employees.
  4. In the last years, the development process of the “new flexibilities” was inhibited in the Modena area and it was mainly due to the diffusion of the “old flexibilities”. As a matter of fact, a deeper analysis of the different sectors pointed out that new forms of flexibilities, such as temporary agency work and consultancy and freelance work “coordinated” by the employer have had a little impact.
  5. In 2000, the number of temporary workers in the Modena province totalled 6,396. If we consider the fact that a “work mission” usually lasts a few weeks and that the equivalent workers/number of missions ratio is 1 to 7.8 (i.e., a work “mission” has an average duration of 1.5 months), the number of “equivalent workers” totals 819. In other words, according to the Genesis’ report, the percentage of temporary workers is 0.3% of the total employment in the Modena area. This percentage is quite low even if it is increasing; however, the overall economical system of the area is affected only marginally.
  6. The interviews have pointed out that there is a growing need for skilled workers in the Modena area and temporary work is far from being the right solution. As a matter of fact, temporary agency work can provide with unskilled workers mainly (i.e. workers and secretaries with no specific skills, etc.) and the costs are as much the same as the costs that a company should pay for their employees, plus the commission the temporary agency requires. What the company “buys” is a number of working hours to be used in the most productive way. The whole operation is quite risky since the temporary agency work is not a guarantee of success. On the other hand, external specialised suppliers can offer high quality services (with greater results) provided by workers with a high degree of expertise.
  7. Apparently, of particular importance is what in Italy is known as consultancy and freelance work “coordinated” by an employer (collaborazione coordinata e continuativa) which involves 28,000 people. Actually, these figures overestimate the real extent of this employment relationship because they are based on National Institute for Social Insurance (Istituto nazionale di previdenza sociale, Inps) data on social security payments and include some forms of traditional self-employment and certain highly specific positions, like members of company boards. The analysis carried out by Genesis points out that the number of workers involved in freelance “coordinated” work amounts to 7,840 units. Despite its limited quantitative importance, the percentage of workers involved in freelance “coordinated” work equals to 3.0% of the total employment in the Modena province, a figure ten times greater than the number of temporary workers.
  8.  The above percentage (3.0%) is the final result of an arithmetic mean calculated among different economical sectors. The data presented in the study show that in various sectors, the percentage of workers involved in freelance “coordinated” work is lower than 1%. On the contrary, there are some sectors that show higher percentages. As far as vocational training is concerned, the percentage reaches 40.0% while in the services to business sector it drops to 14.0%. In the above sectors, the number of “atypical workers” is the rule. However, in other sectors, the number of workers involved in “coordinated” work is quite substantial: the percentage of those involved in providing services to businesses is 5.1%, those involved in commercial activities is 3.6%, those employed in the public administration is 3.4% while those employed in the building sector is 2.5%.
  9.  Who are the workers involved in freelance “coordinated” work? The research carried out by Genesis highlights two distinct categories.

The first category, which amounts to 40-50% of the total freelance “coordinated” workers (less the members of company boards) is made up of middle-high professionals.

These people seem to be the modern version of the self-employed worker that developed in various economical sectors in the Modena province a few years ago. Different working categories are concerned, from the mechanics to the workers that are employed in the textile-clothing industry. Their level of expertise is different from that of the craftsmen who “started their own business” in the previous decade; however they share the same attitude towards work. These forms of employment are completely different from the structure of the dependent work, since freelance “coordinated” workers act within the frame of a market that demands high quality services. In other words, these “new flexibilities” are the direct outcome of the “old flexibilities” that developed in the previous years.

As we have pointed out above, these professionals belong mainly to the advanced tertiary sector. Emilia Romagna is the second Italian region, after Lombardy, where the number of freelance “coordinated” workers is quite high. As a matter of fact, these are the two most industrialized regions in Italy where innovative and modern services are extensively widespread. Emilia Romagna accounts for 8.4% of Italian GNP and the percentage of freelance “coordinated” workers is 10.0%, a higher percentage than other regions such as Veneto and Piemonte.

The second category of freelance “coordinated” workers is made up of people who do executive jobs. They work at their customers’ offices and they use the productive tools of their customers.

Sometimes “atypical” workers perform the same job as dependent workers and it may happen that the real nature of their working relationship is hidden in order to avoid social security payments. However their situation is different from the one of dependent workers: their commitment and salaries are higher than those of dependent workers since employers pay for the service not for the duration in terms of working hours needed to “produce” the service. This situation applies both for a door-to-door salesperson, and tiler, or a professional who organises a vocational training course and a person who is employed in a supermarket.

Temporary agency work is quite distinct from freelance “coordinated” work. When companies require freelance “coordinated” workers they buy a service, since the workers are paid for their expertise and the final service they provide. As far as temporary agency work is concerned, the work organisation is similar to dependent work and people are paid on a time basis. As it is rightly pointed out, temporary agency work is in most cases transformed into open-ended employment relationships while freelance “coordinated” work is rarely transformed into an open-ended employment relationship.



Massimo D'Angelillo is economist and works as manager of Genesis. Genesis carries out researches and studies on labour market, local economic policies and new employment opportunities. See for further details

European Interests - newsletter provided by European Social, Organisational and Science Consultancy (ESOSC), Aghabullogue, Ireland. ISSN 1649-1955. Issue 1-2003