Italy’s Recession-Proof Profession: Getting Paid to Wait in Line
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
You’re just standing around anyway — why not get paid for it?
Italian teenagers leave high school chanting a mantra their fathers have implanted in their brains: “Find a job with a contract that pays for your pension, vacations, health care, travel and overtime.” Trouble is, for most Italians, combining work and a contract is like trying to regain paradise lost — mission impossible.
So when Giovanni Cafaro, 45, found himself unemployed three years ago, the former communications expert in Milan did not despair. Instead, he invented a job previously unknown in Italy: getting paid to wait in line for others. This side hustle has been around for some time in North America and India, but the boot was ripe for it: According to national statistics, Italians waste 16 days per year waiting in line, which costs the economy 40 billion euros (about $43 billion).
People hate waiting in line. I love it … Bureaucracy is our best ally.
Irene Xotta, real estate agent and part-time queuer, Novara, Italy
Turning a necessity into a virtue is one of many winning Italian traits. So, where others saw nothing but frustration, Cafaro saw opportunity — and trust the man with a master’s degree in human resources and business management from Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University to give the trend an Italian twist. Cafaro pulled together a 30-page contract for the new profession and mailed it to the labor ministry in Rome, which had helped him prep the document. A few days later, the ministry issued queuers, or codisti, a national labor contract similar to the ones that govern the fields of medicine, law and engineering. “I didn’t want this job to go underground, nourishing the black market economy,” Cafaro says proudly, “but to be regulated, so queuers were actually protected by concrete rules.”
The codisti have to do their rule-bound part as well. To earn a certificate, they complete online courses on how to fill out forms, communicate with public officials, snip red tape and deal with hellish bureaucracies. In addition, they must register for the value added tax, which they then will pass on to clients just like any other aboveboard business.
Cafaro’s work contract clearly defines the gig. Companies and individuals can hire queuers for one-off services, like accompanying Granny to the post office when she withdraws her pension, or they can sign them on as full-time independent contractors. For the latter, the client pays for holidays and transportation, phone and other business expenses. In either case, the client and queuer sign an agreement to abide by the contract, even if it’s just for one morning of work, at a standard rate of 10 euros per hour, minus 2.5 euros for taxes, pension and health care, explains Cafaro. If an employer fails to pay, the queuer has the right to drag him to court. In the kingdom of bureaucracy, receipts are sacred: Once queuers carry out their commissions, they must provide the client with a receipt and keep a copy.
Cafaro has turned it all into an unexpected but thriving business. In 2015 the “eureka” man founded a network of “waiting professionals” — some 500 and counting — who earn on average about 1,500 euros per month ($1,600). Many professional VAT-registered queuers have created their own websites with catchy slogans like “In Line for You,” but most rely on the contacts and calls from loyal customers of Cafaro, the Milan-based chief of this so-called Tribe of Queuers. Cafaro’s example is infecting the rest of Europe. Wannabe queuers in France, Spain and Germany grill him on the secrets of his success, while in the U.K. and Poland similar firms already are up and running.
Cafaro’s crew and other codisti are responding to their new calling with brio. They rise at dawn and queue for eight hours on a sidewalk to buy a client the latest iPhone model; pay bills at the tax man’s office; stand in line at hospitals, drugstores and post offices; buy concert and opera tickets; and shop online for seniors who are internet illiterate but in the market for fruit centrifuge machines. Many line surrogates find the work fulfilling; some even call it fun. “People hate waiting in line. I love it. It never bores me. I get to speak to those standing close by and kill time by replying to emails and doing other work. Bureaucracy is our best ally,” says Irene Xotta, a real estate agent from Novara who got into the waiting game last year and queues in the evenings.
If bureaucracy is a blessing for the queueing class, then Italy indeed must seem like Eden. The country has roughly 50 different types of labor contracts and more than 800 national collective-bargaining agreements, according to the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), a leading trade union. Attempting to read, let alone comprehend, them is like trying to make your way through a thick jungle, says Raffaele Fabozzi, a professor of labor rights at Rome’s LUISS University. “Red tape rules in Italy more than in most European countries, a virus that is hampering investments and hindering growth,” says Giampaolo Galli, a Democrat deputy in Italy’s lower house of Parliament.
Galli has made it his life’s mission to combat bureaucracy, but he may be losing the battle. Cafaro’s explanation for what he sees as an increasing amount of red tape spooling around government machinery: There are fewer public officers who know how to deal with forms and certificates. By legitimizing queuers, the state has acknowledged that sluggish bureaucracies and wasting time in line are social problems that policy makers can’t fix at present. “One thing is sure,” Cafaro says. “Queuers will never go jobless, as red tape will continue to be a part of Italian society for the foreseeable future.”