Teachers celebrate victory over Italian discrimination

For years they have been working alongside their Italian colleagues, teaching English and other languages to classes sometimes numbering 150, earning a fraction of the Italians' salary and enjoying none of their perks.

Successive court victories in their long campaign have only brought further discrimination against them, and in dozens of cases suspension or dismissal.

Foreign university teachers in Italy finally got something to celebrate about yesterday when the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice to fine Italy nearly €310,000 (£210,000) per day because of the discrimination against them.

It is only the third time that an EU member state has been threatened with a fine, and the first time for discrimination.

The size of the proposed fine - far higher than the €250,000 figure that had been suggested - reflects the Commission's impatience after the Italian government had avoided correcting the injustice that has been repeatedly condemned in resolutions of the European Parliament and by the European Court of Justice.

David Petrie, who is chairman of the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy, said: "When I formed the association in 1997, I said the Italian state intended to go the full 15 rounds. I would say we are now in round 15, and this fine will be the knock-out punch."

About 1,000 foreigners are employed teaching foreign languages in universities across Italy; 40 per cent teach English. They have never been entitled to the open-ended contracts enjoyed by Italian university teachers. Seventeen years ago they were employed on one-year contracts that could be extended up to five times.

A Spanish teacher at the University of Venice, Pilar Allue, challenged this in the Italian courts in 1986. Three years later the European Court of Justice ruled in her favour. It was a clear-cut verdict, but Italy spent the subsequent 13 years evading its implications. The most recent condemnation by the European court came in June 2001.

The government's latest attempt to absolve itself was a law passed last month that defined foreign teachers on a par with the lowest, part-time grade of Italian teachers for the purpose of calculating their salary.

The Commission's decision makes it clear that it regards this as utterly inadequate.

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