Italy's Chinese garment workshops boom as workers suffer

Italy's Chinese garment workshops boom as workers suffer
Chinese people cry as they hold candles late on December 3, 2013 in Prato in homage to the seven victims of a Chinese-run garment factory fire on the eve. Italian prosecutors said on December 2, they were hunting for the owner of a Chinese-run garment factory and dormitory where seven workers died in a fire, as the town of Prato declared a day of mourning.

PRATO, Italy - Shen Jianhe lost both her job and home when Italian police shut down her garment factory in the Tuscan city of Prato.

By day, the 38-year-old mother of four would sew trousers at one of the nearly 5,000 workshops run by Chinese immigrants in Prato, which largely turn out cheap clothing for fast-fashion companies in Italy and across Europe.

At night she slept in a plasterboard cubicle hidden behind a wooden wardrobe at the Shen Wu factory - until the police arrived one cold December morning. They sealed the doors and confiscated the 25 sewing machines under a crackdown on an industry that is booming but blighted by illegality and sweatshop conditions.

Amid rolls of fabric, food leftovers and dangling electric cables lay Shen's belongings: a pink baby coat, a blue children's stool, a laptop. She stuffed them into a van, ready to be transported away. "What choice do I have?" said Shen, tears filling her eyes.

Prato, the historical capital of Italy's textile business, has attracted the largest concentration of Chinese-run industry in Europe within less than 20 years.

As many as 50,000 Chinese live and work in the area, making clothes bearing the prized "Made in Italy" label which sets them apart from garments produced in China itself, even at the lower end of the fashion business.

In some ways, the Chinese community of Prato has succeeded where Italian companies have failed. Italy's economy has barely grown over the past decade and is only just emerging from recession, partly due to the inability of many small manufacturers to keep up with global competition.

Yet Prato, which lies 25 km (16 miles) from the Renaissance jewel of Florence, is also a thriving hub of illegality committed by both Italians and Chinese, a byproduct of globalisation gone wrong, many people in the city say.

Up to two thirds of the Chinese in Prato are illegal immigrants, according to local authorities. About 90 percent of the Chinese factories - virtually all of which are rented out to Chinese entrepreneurs by Italians who own the buildings -break the law in various ways, says Aldo Milone, the city councillor in charge of security.

This includes using fabric smuggled from China, evading taxes and grossly violating health and labour regulations. This month a fire, which prosecutors suspect was set off by an electric stove, killed seven workers as they slept in cardboard cubicles at a workshop.

Italian officials acknowledge they haven't cracked down effectively on the mushrooming illicit behaviour.

Prato mayor Roberto Cenni, himself a textiles entrepreneur, arrived in 2009 promising to clean up the area. Cenni says he has trebled inspections since then, but still only a small fraction of the factories are monitored regularly. "We don't have the ability to fight this system of illegality," he said, noting that Prato has only two labour inspectors.

In some cases, local officials share the blame. Prato chief prosecutor Piero Tony ordered the arrest of 11 people this month, including a city council employee who is suspected of issuing false residency permits - for between 600 and 1,500 ($820-$2,100) euros a piece - to more than 300 Chinese immigrants since May.

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