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ROME, Jan 13 2009 (IPS) - The difference in retirement age between men and women -65 and 60, respectively- in Italy lies at the intersection of two major national problems: pension reform, which is a political taboo in the country, and the unequal treatment of women in the labour market in terms of access and pay. It is discriminatory, intolerable, destructive to women, and amounts to a colossal waste of the great untapped capital of Italy’s female population.

The work situation for women in Italy was already grim before we were struck by the current economic crisis. The numbers are almost too shameful to cite: 67 percent of the country’s inactive population are women, which places them in the grey zone between working and not working. According to statistics, 3.5 million inactive women would be inclined to accept any job available but cannot because of a lack of childcare and a lack of demand for female workers by businesses. To this figure, in this country of million, we may soon have to add the women who will lose their jobs as a result of the recession.

Inactivity is the tomb of the labour market, a frequently final transition from employment to a renunciation of work.

It is a long-standing problem that assails women throughout their working years and then into retirement. A mere 46.7 percent of women have access to the labour market, as opposed to 70.9 percent of men, with a sharp disparity between the North and the South. The figure in the North is close to the European average, around 60 percent, but in the centre and South of the country the figure drops to 30 percent, because of which Italy finds itself second only to Malta and Greece, which are last in Europe in this measure.

The contrast between Italy and Europe is bizarre. While here a major effort is required to even to talk about equalising the retirement age, elsewhere in the European Union it is being raised to 65 for men and women, and there is even talk of pushing it to 70.

Now on to the taboo matter of pension reform, which arouses a schizophrenia in attitudes so intense that the very topic is frequently struck from discussion agendas. Various reasons are given: “Too many people have already tried to fix it.” “Someone always gets upset.” “Then who’s going to listen to the unions?” In short, it’s a hot potato better passed to the next administration.

But that won’t be possible this time, thanks to a judgement by the European Court of Justice regarding Italy’s failure to level the public administration retirement age for men and women. The Italian government must respond rapidly and explain what action it intends to take to remedy the situation. If not, a massive fine will be imposed. Unfortunately, thus far the debate about this matter in Italy has been excessively ideological and dominated by empty political rhetoric.

The following figures should provide a powerful justification for restoring to the country’s political agenda women’s pensions, women’s employment, employment continuity, equalising the retirement age, and childcare: old age pension benefits for women are 52 percent of those of men; this figure is 70 percent for disability pensions; in contrast, reversible pensions, in which benefits pass from the man to his widow, are 147 percent higher because women live longer than men. In the last ten years pensions for men have risen by an average of 41 percent, as opposed to 35 percent for women. Moreover, women’s pay is one-third lower than men’s for equal work.

What is the response of the Italian government to this situation? Sending women home earlier, and thus with a lower pension, so they can become babysitters of their children’s children.

What possible defence is there of such an obviously destructive status quo? The right course of action would be to recognise the judgment of the European Court as an opportunity to level the retirement age, pay, and career opportunities for men and women, and improve childcare and public assistance. Otherwise, we will suffer the bad joke of paying a fine of millions of euros that should have been used to help resolve the situation. Who in my country could think it civil, fair, right, or sensible to maintain this inequality for our generation and the ones that will follow? (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Emma Bonino, member of the Transnational Radical Party, senator, and Vice President of the Italian Senate.

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