By Marzia De Giuli
MILAN, Italy, May 10 (Xinhua) -- Italy's economic crisis has not spared agriculture but unions are convinced that quality-oriented policies can boost the industry, experts told Xinhua in a recent interview.
Though agriculture was not among the most hit sectors, it has suffered frozen wages and a loss of jobs, the head of FLAI CGIL agricultural labor union, Giovanni Mininni, said.
In a contrast to other European countries, unions in Italy have enjoyed greater power in drawing up labor contracts as legislation allows them to negotiate with employers.
In the current difficult times, unions are facing new challenges. However, they remain convinced that "productivity is especially bound to employee training and quality development," Mininni said.
While companies pursuing excellence succeeded, tests of "free zones" not guaranteeing workers conditions failed "showing that advanced countries need to compete through quality-oriented policies," he noted.
In the last few years, unions have acted to improve working environment. One of the achieved results was that illegal organizations controlling cheap agricultural labor can be criminally prosecuted.
"Underground labor is today's real problem in agriculture," Mario Ricciardi, an author and professor of labor law at University of Bologna, said.
He noted that about 300,000 workers out of the some 1.5 million in Italy are estimated to be illegally employed especially in the south, where agriculture is less mechanized.
Ricciardi agreed with Mininni that "efficiency in agriculture is made through technological development but also consideration of the workers' rights."
In his view, community-supported agriculture and other direct producer-to-consumer marketing efforts reward both employers and employees in the framework of environmental awareness.
Ricciardi said unions had gone through transformations in line with the times and can still play a major role in agriculture. "They have always had very close ties with political parties, but are now mostly discussing matters at the European level."
"Italy must treasure labor unions because they also have the important role to steer social tensions and prevent possible conflicts," he added.
However, an author and former labor law professor of University of Foggia, Canio Lagala, warned that unions in Italy have increasingly compromised with a huge underground economy and culture of tax evasion.
"Unions often support agriculture through costly and illegal social security policies. Many workers manage to benefit from unemployment compensation with the complicity of their employers," he said.
"This tacit agreement in fact fosters a distortion of the labor market which bloats our country's public debt and is detrimental to its future," Lagala pointed out.
"It is fundamental that Italy's unions remain faithful to their original function also in times of crisis, being able to interpret the modern world and pursue productive transformations," he said.