Farnesina, the strange 'missions' of poorly paid local hires

ROME – The Italian foreign ministry uses hundreds of poorly paid local contractors around the world to carry out strange and delicate ‘missions,’ Il Fatto Quotidiano reports.

 Some 2,300 Farnesina employees on local contracts are said to be paid a pittance and have little union protection. Far from the headquarters in Rome, they are used for the most diverse, delicate and ridiculous tasks, having been sent on errands ranging from collecting the remains of a deceased and verifying victims of attacks in hospitals to getting a former diplomat off the hook. 

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 Matara District in Southern Province, Sri Lanka. On a dilapidated public bus, a local assistant from the Italian embassy in Colombo is bringing back the ashes of a drowned Italian tourist. Carrying the urn on his knees, he holds and defends it at every stop for five hours. The same clerk, however, had the VIP treatment when it came to rescuing a former diplomat in trouble with the Sinhalese law, 300 km away.

 The contractor at the centre of both episodes is a gentleman who had worked as an administrative assistant at the headquarters in Colombo for 10 years and who now, has mysteriously been downgraded to "switchboard operator." 

 This small-scale story forms part of a larger anomaly, which is little spoken of. The Foreign Ministry may have 1020 diplomats, but its network is standing thanks to the efforts of 2,300 employees on local contracts who are paid a pittance and are little protected. And who - far from Rome - end up being used in the most delicate or ridiculous assignments. It reportedly happens everywhere, but is little known because they have no voice.

 For a year now news of the problem of "contractors" has broken in the palaces of politics. Last March, in the Labor Committee in the Chamber, a bill was proposed by Undersecretary Manlio Di Stefano in collaboration with the Honorable Tiziana Ciprini (M5S) – welcomed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI) – to amend the law on the organization of employees of the Ministry in 1967 in Articles that are concerning due to the lack of regulation of local contracts, according to criteria of equity both in terms of salaries and rights. But the problem has dragged on for a long time, given that in July 2018 it was the focus of a meeting between the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Ricardo Merlo and the Foreign Ministry union with the highest level of representativeness among those active at MAECI (Confsal-UNSA Esteri). Meanwhile, some emblematic cases have surfaced.

 One comes from Sri Lanka, where "contractors" have not been given leave for four years. Back to the earlier example where the Italian embassy instructed that the ashes of an “ordinary” Italian travel by coach for five hours perched on the legs of a local assistant. But it sent an official state car and driver – usually reserved for high-ranking officials – to escort an ex diplomat in trouble with Sinhala justice 300 km away. 

 The Italian delegation in Colombo paid him 398.58 euros a month to work as an assistant but he is employed in very delicate missions, to say the least.

 The most recent episode dates back to April 23, 2019, when the staffer received an order to travel with his private car to the Negombo hospital to verify the presence of Italians among victims of an attack that killed 253 people. He speaks to the police and doctors and agrees to transmit the names by fax – not the ambassador, the consul or an embassy official. But it is not the only "adventure." On Feb. 28 he was asked to go to the locality of Matara-Dickwella, in the southern province of Sri Lanka, to a funeral home to collect the ashes of an Italian citizen who tragically drowned in the sea five days earlier.

 The means indicated by the embassy to travel 360 ​​km away is the train. He is accompanied by an official car to the local train station only to arrive and discover the railway line to Dickwella is down due to a derailment. So, after informing headquarters, he is forced to opt for the only alternative means of transport at that time – the bus. The journey takes ten hours, half of which he has the urn wobbling on his knees as the bus navigates through holes, all while passengers look on with questioning gazes. Not to mention the terror of a police check – no one had bothered to draw up a letter of engagement to explain the unusual hand luggage, a note that would have qualified him as an embassy employee (he had merely provided his name to the funeral director), and would have authorized him to transport the ashes on local public transport.

 The adventure ended at 9:30 p.m., after more than 12 hours of service, with a bitter surprise: after having delivered the ashes along with the death certificate of the deceased to the Carabiniere, he discovers that the headquarters is limited to paying him 5,000 Sinhalese rupees, equal to 25 euros, as reimbursement of the bus ticket. 

 "The daily allowance of 13.30 euros is still missing, an amount that in the eyes of us all might appear to be small, represents an important recognition for the colleague," reads a note from the Italian union, which is registered with the Director General for the Foreign Ministry staff.  

 The same employee, three years ago, was involved in an even more delicate trip. In 2016, instead of this time being treated as a pauper, he was sent as a prince and given the VIP treatment – a chauffeured official car along with a bag full of money – to rescue a former retired ambassador who had been arrested for running over a woman at a pedestrian crossing. The story is little known and has surfaced now because the disparity in the means of transport used in the two circumstances caused a lot of eye rolling in the diplomatic office.

 On Jan. 3, 2016, the retired Ambassador P.D., was on vacation in "India’s teardrop." While driving the car towards the city of Jaffna he ran over a woman who was on the pedestrian crossing. The woman, a 44-year-old teacher, ends up in a coma ("serious injuries" the local newspapers write). The former diplomat is arrested in the Anuradhapura district. To help this compatriot belonging to the noble class, a vehicle very different from the broken-down local public transport is allocated – with no spending restrictions.

 Then ambassador Paolo Andrea Bartorelli, who left office last year, immediately sends the usual collaborator to lend assistance to the former diplomat. In this case the special service consists of a 'blue car' (so named due to the flashing blue lights) and driver. On board, the employee and a colleague, a lawyer and a friend of the embassy secretary. All headed to Kebethigollewa, more than 300 kilometres away from the diplomatic headquarters.

 Given the circumstances, the secretary takes extra care to write the letter of assignment and does not skimp on expenses: 10,000 rupees for the deposit, to be paid up front, to satisfy the needs of the released prisoner to dine in a proper restaurant, an Italian restaurant (the transfers to and from the court will then vary during three months, with more "refreshment" stops). The woman, a 44-year-old teacher, according to a press release at the time, was paid 200,000 rupees in compensation, roughly 1,000 euros. According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, the P.D. claims not to have paid anything out of his own pocket, nor bail or compensation. So, was public money used? The Farnesina hasn’t commented on the episode: "We know the case, we prefer not to comment."

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