Analysis-Italy's Meloni talks tough on migrants while opening up to foreign workers

By Alvise Armellini and Elvira Pollina

ROME (Reuters) - Madou Koulibaly is the new face of an old Italy.

The 24-year-old, who arrived in the country from Guinea in 2018, is blazing a trail as Tuscany's first migrant bus driver recruited as part of a drive to fill labour gaps with foreign workers. He was more surprised than anyone.

"I said, a bus? No, I cannot drive a bus," he recalled. "I have never seen an African drive a bus in Italy, especially an African who's arrived on a boat!"

Koulibaly is feeling the more welcoming front of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's contrasting immigration plans.

Meloni, who rose to power in October last year on a staunchly nationalist agenda, has captured global headlines with her vows to clamp down on unauthorised arrivals from North Africa with harsher immigration laws, restrictions on sea rescue charities and plans to build migrant reception camps in Albania.

At the same time, though, she's throwing open the door to hundreds of thousands of migrants to work in Italy legally in an effort to plug yawning labour gaps in the country, which has one of the world's oldest and most rapidly shrinking populations.

By 2050, Italy will have almost 5 million fewer people, and more than a third of them will be over 65, national statistics office Istat predicts. Younger blood is badly needed in a host of industries, from construction and tourism to agriculture.

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who signed a three-year deal with Tunisia in October that simplified visa and residence permit procedures for up to 4,000 Tunisians per year, says the government is not opposed to immigration per se.

"We want to choose who enters Italy and Europe, and not leave the choice to traffickers," he told parliament on Nov. 21.

Giuliano Cazzola, a labour market expert and former conservative lawmaker, said economic and demographic realities were tempering the government's anti-immigration stance.

"I am absolutely convinced that immigration is the easiest tool to repopulate Italy," he added. "A baby who is born today will enter the labour market in 20 years' time, whereas someone who arrives here is 20 and can be put to work immediately."

Italy is not alone in wrestling with unfolding demographic and labour crises, with nations from Britain and Canada to Japan contending with similar problems, though its situation is among the most acute.

Meloni's balancing act echoes that of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has launched drives to "Stop the Boats" bringing undocumented migrants to UK shores while presiding over record annual net numbers of arrivals.


Despite its pledges to stem rising flows of unauthorised migrants, Meloni's government has had little success.

Sea arrivals from North Africa have jumped to nearly 153,000 so far this year from almost 96,000 in the same period of 2022 and 63,000 in the same period of 2021, and close to a historic all-year peak of around 181,400 in 2016, according to government data.

Meanwhile, Italy has raised quotas for work visas for non-EU citizens to 452,000 for the period 2023-2025, an increase of nearly 150% from the previous three years. This year's quota - 136,000 - is the highest since 2008.

The visas are reserved for people who already have job offers and typically benefit undocumented migrants already in Italy who use the quotas to legalise their situation.

There aren't enough to satisfy requests.

The government has estimated a demand from businesses and unions for 833,000 permits over the 2023-2025 period. This year's quota was massively oversubscribed, with more than 600,000 pre-applications.

Italy's labour crisis is particularly severe in places like Brescia, a wealthy northern province where unemployment is about 4%, around half the national average.

Business association Confindustria has joined forces with local authorities to launch a scheme that allows employers to screen and recruit workers directly from reception centres for asylum-seekers.

"We are desperately looking for workers, we have no appeal among young Italians, who no longer have any interest in doing manual labour, which is seen as second-class work," said Paolo Bettoni, head of a Brescia training centre run by a construction trade group affiliated to Confindustria.

So far, about 200 asylum-seekers have been selected from a pool of more than 800 candidates, local officials said. The plan is to discuss training opportunities with them, with a view to start courses in January, hopefully leading to jobs later.

Staff shortages are more apparent in low-skill sectors. Some employers say this is at least partly due to unattractive working conditions, including low pay.

Italy, which has sluggish economic growth, is the only country in the 38-nation Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where inflation-adjusted wages have declined in the last 30 years.

Carlo Massoletti, head of the Brescia chapter of retail lobby Confcommercio, said companies there were losing about 20% of potential turnover for lack of personnel, adding that kitchen staff, waiters and hotel maids were among the tougher roles to fill.


Meloni affirmed her right-wing credentials in September when she attended a summit in Budapest hosted by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a longtime political ally, and declared: "We live in an era where everything that defines us is under attack."

She said Italy and Europe's demographic problems would be best addressed by lifting national birth rates, but acknowledged that a quota of legal migration could make a "positive contribution" to economies.

Her twin track on immigration isn't hard enough for some of her government allies.

"The priority is closing the inflow," Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the co-ruling League party and a longstanding hawk on immigration, said on Nov. 28.

"I am happy to choose from countries of origin some categories of workers," he added. "But before any further opening, it is necessary to control arrivals."

Francesco Torselli, head of Meloni's Brothers of Italy party in the Tuscan regional assembly, had decried the recruitment of migrants like Koulibaly in Florence by regional transport company Autolinee Toscane as "nothing short of scandalous".

"Why raise drivers' salaries when you can hire immigrants and - perhaps - pay them even less???" he posted on Instagram when the scheme was launched in October last year. "Here is Autolinee Toscane's 'solution' to the problem of the lack of bus drivers in Tuscany... I'm shocked, what about you?"

Autolinee Toscane denies discriminating between Italian and foreign workers and offering lower wages to migrants.

Koulibaly himself isn't fazed.

Until recently, he had lived in a migrant reception centre, despite having been granted a residence permit, because he struggled to find affordable housing in Florence.

He sees the job as a chance to pursue his own Italian dream, and hopes other newcomers will follow his lead.

"I am doing this job for myself, for my family and also for all the migrants that are in Italy, because a lot of people think that we are all bad and that there are some jobs we cannot do, and that's not true," he said.

(Editing by Keith Weir and Pravin Char)