The government has got to decide what it wants to do with us, said Paola Salomone hotly. We are being used, added her colleague Giuliana Renga, and we are powerless to do anything about it. Salomone and Renga are just two of 2,200 custodians and technical assistants who were employed by the culture ministry between 1999 and 2000 to guarantee evening and weekend opening at state-run museums and sites during the millennium jubilee. Their contracts expire at the end of this year and no-one knows what will happen to them after that.

The fact is that these extra staff members, or so-called precari giubilari, have become indispensable. Italians have quickly grown accustomed to having extended access to their museums and archaeological sites, but in many places without the giubilari such access would not be possible. At the Crypta Balbi in Via delle Botteghe Oscure where Salomone and Renga work, 20 out of 24 staff members are on temporary contracts. Without them, Romes museum of mediaeval culture would not be able to open. This year they have staged a series of strikes most recently on 29 June in protest at the failure of the powers-that-be to make up their minds. At the June strike many sites in Rome including the Palatine, the Roman Forum and the four sections of the Museo Nazionale Romano were unable to open due to lack of staff, with negative consequences for tourism on a busy holiday weekend.

Libero Rossi, national representative for culture of the trade union CGIL, puts the problem down to funding. The political will [to stabilise the position of the giubilari] exists, he said. The problem is with the treasury ministry. He cited a bill presented earlier this year by a senator of the main government coalition party Forza Italia which provides for their employment on a permanent basis. The problem is that the 52 million needed to bring the legislation into effect has not been made available. The bill has been stuck in the senate for over three months.

The Crypta Balbi staff take a different view. The bill is a deceit intended to keep us quiet, said Renga. She recalled a similar initiative at the end of last year, when she and her colleagues genuinely thought that they would be offered a permanent contract. In the event, the bill was passed by the senate only to be thrown out by the chamber. Then a 12-month extension to their contract was used as a stop-gap solution. Both the staff at Crypta Balbi and Rossi of CGIL anticipate that this is what will happen this year too.

However, the problem of the temporary staff is only part of a much broader issue concerning cultural policy in Italy. The former centre-left government worked to make the national heritage more accessible to Italians. The present administration led by Silvio Berlusconi would seem to be doing the opposite. The increase in admission fees to many museums and sites following the euro changeover is a case in point. In its first year in power the centre-right has come up with two controversial strategies which could jeopardise public access to many sites of historical and cultural importance. The first involves the partial or total involvement of the private sector in the management of the cultural heritage. The other, contained in the so-called salva deficit law, concerns the sale of some state property including selected cultural heritage sites.

At the heart of the issue is money. The government is having to grapple with a deficit in public spending of over 1,300 billion, and the new legislation is a way of financing public works such as the Messina bridge and the Civitavecchia-Livorno motorway without emptying the state pot still further. The brain behind the new legislation is treasury minister Giulio Tremonti. He has created two companies, Patrimonio dello Stato Spa and Infrastrutture Spa, which will oversee the transfer of resources from one sector to the other. The idea is to make money out of what is currently a cost, he said last month in defence of the law.

The involvement of the private sector in the administration of the national cultural heritage is nothing new. The provision for private management is merely an extension of existing legislation concerning the private running of services for visitors (bookshops, ticketing, cloakroom services, restaurant facilities, etc), while governments have been trying (unsuccessfully) to sell off elements of state property for years. The former centre-left government led by Giuliano Amato hypothesised the privatisation of around 100 items, including some places of cultural interest.

What is worrying opponents of the new legislation is the reluctance of the government to clarify which sites are not for sale. Despite cautioning from President Ciampi and opposition even from within government ranks (most spectacularly from the then cultural undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi), culture minister Giuliano Urbani said that to draw up a list of unsaleable items was impossible, and that decisions would be taken as we go along. The constitution, he argued, provided a sufficient guarantee.

Contrary to recent headlines, major sites such as the Colosseum and the Uffizi are not, and will never be, for sale. It is, according to experts in the sector, the minor jewels of Italian culture that are at risk. In an interview to the national daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, culture superintendent for Tuscany and former culture minister Antonio Paolucci cited the Sellano belltower in Umbria and the ancient walls of Filottrano in the Marche as examples of sites that are now in danger. Without a clear idea of what can and cannot be sold, will the government be able to resist the temptation to sell something which it should not?