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The COVID-19 Crisis and Employment Contracts: the Italian Emergency Legislation on Dismissals

The author of this post is Caterina Benini, a PhD student at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. This is the fourth in a series of posts aimed to explore the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the phenomena of mobility and exchange that form the constituent elements of private international law, and to discuss the responses that private international law rules provide to the challenges posed by the crisis itself (see the previous contributions by Giovanni Chiapponi, Matthias Lehmann and Tomaso Ferando). The EAPIL blog welcomes further contributions on these topics, either in the form of comments to the published posts or in the form of guest posts. Those interested in proposing a guest post for publication are encouraged to contact the blog’s editorial team at blog@eapil.org.  


Article 46 of the Italian Decree-Law of 17 March 2020

The Italian government enacted on 17 March 2020 a Decree-Law, i.e. a piece of urgent legislation, in an effort to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Italian Parliament later endorsed the Decree-Law and converted it into Law.

The Decree-Law sets forth a broad range of measures, some of which relate to employment contracts. In particular, Article 46 of the Decree-Law provides, among other things, that, for a period of 60 days after its entry into force (that is, between 17 March 2020 and 18 May 2020), no employment contract may be terminated on grounds of a failure by the employee to perform his or her obligations, or on objective grounds such as a drop in the demand for the employer’s goods or services.

From the standpoint of private international law, Article 46 gives rise to a set of interpretative problems whenever employment contracts featuring a cross-border element are concerned.

A mandatory rule providing a minimum standard of protection for employees

Article 46 of the Decree-Law applies in principle to all employment relationships governed by Italian law, regardless of whether Italian law is the law chosen by the parties or rather applies to the contract objectively.

In the Member States of the European Union, Article 46 may also come into play, by virtue of Article 8(1) of the Rome I Regulation, in contracts that the parties agreed to submit to a law other than Italian law.

In fact, if the contract would have been governed by Italian law pursuant to Article 8(2), (3) or (4) of the Regulation, the choice of a different law by the parties may not have the result of depriving the employee of the protection afforded to him or her by Article 46. This means, for example, that if an employee who habitually carries out his work in Italy is dismissed during the above stated period, he or she will be able to rely on Article 46, regardless of whether the employer is entitled, under the law chosen by the parties, to terminate the contract.

Given that Article 46 finds hardly any equivalent in other legal systems, Article 8(1) of the Rome I Regulation will almost invariably interfere with the chosen law whenever the issue arises, in a Member State, of an employment contract connected with Italy in the way described in Article 8(2), (3) or (4).

An overriding mandatory provision?

Article 46 of the Decree-Law, it is submitted, further qualifies as an overriding mandatory provision of the Italian legal order within the meaning of Article 9(1) of the Rome I Regulation.

The characterisation of Article 46 as an overriding mandatory provision stems from the fact that it satisfies the two requirements mandated under Article 9(1) of the Regulation: (i) it aims to protect a public interest, and (ii) it is meant to apply to any situation within its own scope, irrespective of the law otherwise applicable to the contract.

As to the first requirement, it is argued that, through the prohibition set out in Article 46, the Italian government aims to protect the stability of social and economic relationships of Italy. Indeed, as mentioned in a press release of 16 March 2020, by adopting a set of measures in support of employment, the government intended to prevent businesses from reacting to the pandemic and any related restriction by suddenly terminating a large number of employment contracts, as this might result, in turn, in social unrest. The fact that in the draft of the new Decree-Law Article 46 is extended for three further months, appears to confirm that the ban on dismissals is part of a broader strategy aimed at preventing conflicts which could possibly arise throughout the coronavirus crisis.

Turning to the second requirement, it is submitted that Article 46 implicitly provides its own scope of application, within which it intends to be applied irrespective of the law otherwise applicable under the relevant conflict-of-law rules.

Lacking any geographical limitation in Article 46 itself, regard should be given to other provisions of the Decree-Law which suggest that the various measures adopted therein are in principle meant to apply only territorially.

The preamble, for instance, makes it clear that the Decree-Law addresses the impact of Covid-19 on the “national social-economic reality”, meaning business, workers and households located in Italy. Furthermore, the scope of some provisions is explicitly limited to the territory of Italy. This holds true for provisions on social security, featured in Chapter I of Title II (“Measures in support of employment”). Article 46, though included in a different chapter of the same title, presents itself as part of the overall strategy adopted to support workers. Arguably, its scope should be geographically limited to situations connected with Italy in the same way as the other measures pursuing that goal.

The qualification of Article 46 as an overriding mandatory rule entails that, pursuant to Article 9(2) of the Rome I Regulation, Article 46 of the Decree-Law will be applied by Italian courts, no matter the law specified by the Regulation itself, to any cross-border employment relationship centred in Italy. In such a scenario, any dismissal justified by the employer’s financial difficulties or by the employee’s impossibility to perform his or her activity would be considered invalid and without effect.

What if the cross-border employment relationship brought before the Italian court is governed by a foreign law and is not connected with Italy? Should Article 46 be applied as an overriding mandatory provision of the forum?

It is argued that in such scenario an Italian court should not apply Article 46 of the Decree-Law, since relationships entirely disconnected from Italy do not fall among the cases to which this provision is meant to apply. Indeed, being Article 46 addressed to situations immediately and directly affected by the Covid-19 crisis and the measures adopted by the Italian government to face it, only cross-border relationships having a genuine connection with Italy – such as when the employee is asked to predominantly perform his or her activity in Italy, or when the employer’s establishment in charge of managing the relationship is situated in Italy – qualify to fall within its scope of application.

Another question of greater complexity is whether an Italian court ought to apply Article 46 of the Decree-Law when the employment relationship displays only a minimum connection with Italy, for instance because the employee was hired in Italy although in fact he or she never worked there.

To solve this issue, it is necessary to understand how intense the connection with the territory of Italy must be for Article 46 to be triggered. Considering the above analysis on the rationale of Article 46, it is argued that cases presenting a minimal connection with Italy fall outside the scope of application of Article 46.

Indeed, if the rationale of Article 46 is to protect the social and economic relations of Italy, there is no reason to apply such rule to employment relationships whose real seat – identified by the place of the employee’s predominant performance or the employer’s establishment – is not located in Italy, so that their termination does not jeopardise the Italian social order.

An overriding mandatory rule of the State of performance of the obligations?

A different issue is whether, and subject to which conditions, Article 46 may be given effect in a Member State other than Italy pursuant to Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation, that is, as an overriding mandatory rule of a country than is neither the forum nor the country whose law applies to the contract.

Article 9(3) provides that “[e]ffect may be given to the overriding mandatory provisions of the law of the country where the obligations arising out of the contract have to be or have been performed, in so far as those overriding mandatory provisions render the performance of the contract unlawful”.

Three requirements must be met by a rule of a third State in order to fall within Article 9(3): (i) it must be an overriding mandatory rule pursuant to Article 9(1); (ii) it must be a rule of the country where the contractual obligations have to be or have been performed and (iii) it must render the contractual performance unlawful.

Having already explained why Article 46 is an overriding mandatory rule pursuant to Article 9(1), this section will focus on whether Article 46 can satisfy the remaining requirements.

With respect to the second requirement, for Article 46 to qualify as a rule of the country of the contractual performance, there are two interrelated questions that must be answered: (i) is an act of dismissal an act of performance of a contractual obligation? (ii) If so, where does it take place?

Adhering to the restrictive interpretation given to Article 9 by the ECJ in Nikiforidis, the answer to the first question should be negative: an act of dismissal cannot be strictly defined as an act of performance of whatever obligation arising out of the employment contract. Rather, the dismissal is the act by which the employer exercises the right to unilaterally terminate the contract, precluding the employee from performing his or her obligations towards the employer. As a result of this, Article 46 of the Decree-Law should be denied the effect prescribed by Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation.

This conclusion, although aligned with the case-law of the ECJ, does not seem fully satisfactory.

If the main goal of giving effect to the overriding mandatory rules of a third State is to render a decision which is fair because it takes into account the rules of the legal order with which the situation is most closely connected, by interpreting narrowly the notion of “performance of contractual obligations”, such goal cannot be pursued in all those cases where the dispute does not concern the performance of an obligation, but rather the exercise of a right.

It is argued that, if contractual rights and obligations are the two sides of the same coin, it would be unreasonable to consider the place of performance of the contractual obligations as the only place relevant for the purposes of Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation, to the detriment of the place of exercise of a contractual right. According to the circumstances of the case, both these places may share a close connection with the relationship at stake so to justify the consideration of their overriding mandatory rules pursuant to Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation.

However, as things currently stand, in a dispute concerning the validity of the employer’s exercise of its right to terminate the contract, the court of a Member State, seized of the matter, may give effect, pursuant to Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation, to the overriding mandatory rules of the State where the employee performs his or her contractual obligations – which in a cross-border employment relationship is likely not to coincide with the State where the right of dismissal was exercised – with which the issue of the dismissal is not strictly connected.

To avoid such a short circuit, a flexible interpretation of the concept “performance of contractual obligations” should be adopted for the purposes of Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation.

An overture to this effect can be seen in the AG Szpunar’s Opinion in the Nikiforidis case. Leveraging on the genuine meaning of the mechanism of overriding mandatory rules of third States – i.e. preserving the connection with the legal order to which the relationship is more strictly connected – AG Szpunar favoured a broad interpretation of the notion “performance of contractual obligations”, as to encompass not only the obligation consisting in characteristic performance, but any obligation arising from the contract (§ 93), irrespective of whether directly defined by the parties in the contract or imposed by law (§ 94).

The step forward to AG Szpunar’s interpretation would be to endorse a contextualized interpretation of the entire notion of “performance of contractual obligations”, so that when the dispute concerns only the credit side of the relationship – which by definition does not encompass the performance of an obligation – the exercise of a right should be understood as equivalent to the performance of an obligation for the purposes of Article 9(3). Along the lines of what AG Szpunar argued, this should hold true both for the exercise of rights conferred by the contract and the exercise of rights conferred directly by the governing law.

As to the place where the creditor’s right is exercised, it is reasonable to localize it at the same place where the creditor is established. This means that in case of an act of dismissal, said place will coincide with the place of establishment of the employer.

Building on such interpretation, Article 46 appears to fulfil the second requirement provided for under Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation, being a rule of the country where the statutory right of termination has been or is to be exercised by the employer based in Italy.

The compliance of Article 46 with the unlawfulness requirement set out above is more straightforward. As Article 46 renders unlawful the dismissals of employees on the grounds of the Covid-19 financial difficulties encountered by their employers, also the third requirement set out above is satisfied.

The above is without prejudice to the fact that the decision of whether to give effect to Article 46 of the Decree-Law will be taken by the court seized on the basis of its own discretionary assessment of the nature, purpose and consequences deriving from the application or non-application of such provision.

When performing such assessment, which is political in nature, the court will evaluate whether the rationale underpinning Article 46 can be welcomed as convergent with the values of the forum. In essence, the court will assess whether, on the basis of the policies of its own legal order – including solidarity with other EU Member States – the rule of conduct prescribed by Article 46 of the Italian Decree-Law can be considered justified by the protection of interests that the forum wants to safeguard with the same or a similar degree of intensity adopted by the Italian legislator in Article 46 of the Decree-Law.

This ultimately shows that the application of overriding mandatory rules of third States falling within the category of Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation, to put it with AG Szpunar, “creates for the [seized] court the possibility of giving a decision which is fair and at the same time has regard to the need to balance the competing interests of the States involved” (§ 74).

Seen from this perspective, the consideration of the overriding mandatory rules of a third State is an opportunity for the judge to give a decision which is considered fair because aligned with its own values not only by the State enacting the overriding mandatory provision but also by the forum itself. Hence, the broad interpretation of Article 9(3) of the Rome I Regulation above proposed should be welcomed as increasing the cases where such possibility can be granted.

2 comments on “The COVID-19 Crisis and Employment Contracts: the Italian Emergency Legislation on Dismissals

  1. Matthias Lehmann

    Many thanks for the interesting post. I wonder though whether there is a need and justification to apply the decree as an overriding mandatory provision. As you mention, it already applies under Art 8(1) 2 Rome I to employment contracts governed by another law than that of Italy. Should the specific criteria laid down for employment relations in Art 8 Rome I not be considered as lex specialis to the application of Art 9 Rome I?

    • Caterina Benini

      Dear Professor Lehmann, I see your concern. Indeed, in many cases – i.e. those where the activity is predominantly performed in Italy – the protective mechanism provided for under Article 8(1) Rome I Regulation appears enough to justify the application of Article 46 of the Decree-Law.

      However, there could be some cases which, although connected with Italy with the intensity required by the Decree-Law, do not trigger Article 46 via Article 8(1) of the Regulation. I am referring, for instance, to a situation where the employee of an Italian subsidiary of a multinational group established in Germany performs his or her activity in different Member States, including Italy, without being possible to identify a State where the activity is predominantly performed. In such a case, the law objectively applicable would be the law of the place of engagement pursuant to Article 8(3) of the Regulation, which in this scenario could likely be the place where the mother-company is established. Under these circumstances, the competent judge could not apply Article 46 via Article 8(1) of the Regulation. Hence, the need to pass through Article 9 to apply Article 46 to such a case which falls within its scope of application, being the Italian employer directly affected by the Covid-19 crisis and the measures adopted to face it.

      As to the relationship between Article 8(1) and Article 9 of the Regulation, I do not think that the former applies by way of exclusion of the latter. Firstly, as shown in the example above, such mechanisms do not have the same reach as to justify the application of the one in lieu of the other. Secondly, they do not lie at the same level and they do not have the same nature. While Article 9 belongs to the first-prong of the conflict-of-laws inquiry, when the court verifies whether there are international mandatory provisions it must or may apply regardless of the applicable law, it is only at the second-prong of the inquiry, when the court applies the conflict-of-laws rules, that Article 8 enters into the stage. This is the consequence of the different method they employ for pursuing the interests underlying them: while Article 8 aims to protect the employees with a rule which is still part of the bilateral game of the conflict-of-laws rules, Article 9 protects the public interests of the enacting State with a unilateral approach which prevails over bilateral conflict of laws rules. Hence, I would argue for keeping both mechanisms also with respect to employment contracts.

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