ROME — As the stereotype goes, Americans toil away hour after hour, while over here in Italy, workers are more prone to lunching than laboring.
Italians tend to bristle at such easy categorization, but on one point there’s little dispute: the nation’s government employees are a lazy bunch.
Now, a government minister has launched an anti-slacker campaign to slay sloth in the bureaucracy.
“Ferraris, we can make. Designer clothes, we can produce. Sun, pizza and love, we can provide a lot of,” said minister of public functions Renato Brunetta. “It’s the public administration that is below par.”
Brunetta has become a folk hero in Italy for his vow to modernize government offices and expel idlers among the 3.6 million public workers.
Low productivity, he acknowledges, is not exclusively a problem of the public sector, and the minister is counting on his efforts to nudge private companies into action, too.
“The public has woken up,” he said. “It has had an epiphany.”
But numbers point to some persistent dozing among Italy’s workforce.
Labor productivity in Italy lags far behind other industrialized nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
OECD figures show labor productivity in Italy grew less than 0.5 percent between 2001-06, while in the United States, for example, the rate over 2 percent in the same period, and in fellow EU country France it was about 1.5 percent.
Italians take about six weeks of vacation a year, compared to a little over three weeks for workers in the United States and two for those in Japan.
With competition from Asia intensifying, Italy will dawdle at its peril. The country is at zero growth and the prospect of a global recession only makes the outlook gloomier.
“Italy has a very difficult time ahead, so it can’t afford to waste resources anymore,” said Michel Martone, a labor law professor at Teramo University and Luiss in Rome. “Public spending must go toward efficiency and effectiveness.”
Martone credited Brunetta’s campaign with helping to wean the country away from a long-standing cynical view that the undeserving go unpunished and hard workers never finish first.
Brunetta insisted that laziness was a mere bad habit, not a fixed national trait.
“I don’t believe Italians are anthropologically slackers,” Brunetta said in a recent interview. “Italy is a country of small- and mid-sized companies, of self-employment. It is the country of people who take bold risks every day.”
In the state bureaucracy, he said, “bad politics and bad unions have created a monster, a monster of inefficiency.”
The laziness debate has burst from the corridors of power and into newspaper headlines, with tales that are half-tragic, half-comic.
The Turin newspaper La Stampa reported that a public employee in a small town on the northwestern coast, Mallare, punched his timecard, then went boar hunting. But, his luck turned for the worse when he was shot in the leg and found out by his employer.
A postal employee on disability leave reportedly spent part of her recovery vacationing in Kenya, saying the sun would help heal her sore back.
And the mayor of a village in southern Italy, Banzi, didn’t come in for work on 166 days — more than five months — over an 18-month period, published reports said.
Public employees here took an average of 20 days off in 2006 for health or other reasons, according to government estimates. That is in addition to some 30 days of vacation for many public employees.
Brunetta, a 58-year-old economy professor and former adviser to Premier Silvio Berlusconi, is no slacker himself: he says he works about 13 hours a day.
“There is enormous potential, just waiting to be woken up and brought to light,” he said of his country. “The public administration is the greatest reservoir for development that Italy has at this moment.”
To reduce absenteeism, the ministry is cutting the bonuses of those who take sick leave. In certain cases of repeated absences, rigorous doctors’ notes will be required. Brunetta has also started a survey to reward public workers who do a good job.
Already, the campaign is showing signs of success, having brought absenteeism down by about 44 percent in both August and September this year, compared with the same months in 2007, according to figures provided by his ministry.
Martone, the labor law professor, approved of the government’s efforts, but expected a long fight to change Italian habits.
“Italy is full of people who want to rise to the top but don’t know how. You need something like a social elevator: those who excel go up, but those who idle around, fake sickness, need to go down and get off,” Martone said.
“This is a cultural battle that will require time and must be waged on many fronts,” he said. “Italians, it seems, are starting to understand that.”
Associated Press writer Ella Ide contributed to this report.