A little-known Italian city is phenomenally popular with Chinese workers. And with factories full of low-paid workers come all-too familiar risks

The northern Italian city of Prato is Florence’s scruffy younger brother. While tourist-infested Florence is considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Prato, just 16 miles away, is down-to-earth and workman-like – though, being in Italy, it also has a Romanesque cathedral full of stunning 15th century frescoes by Filippo Lippi.

Prato also has one of Europe’s largest Chinese communities – about 45,000 in a city of 190,000. Most come from the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou, and have arrived in the past 20 years. Primarily, they come to Prato to work in garment factories. Andrea Cavicchi, head of the Confindustria employers’ federation in Prato, says that of Prato’s 29,000 business, about 5,000 are Chinese-run. Of these, about 3,400 produce clothing.

Prato is unusual for the concentration and scale of its Chinese-owned clothing workshops. But Milan, Turin, Venice and Naples are also centres of Chinese activity. In France, meanwhile, according to a 2013 report by the Europe China Research and Advice Network (Ecran), a European Union-funded project, Chinese fashion entrepreneurs have “turned to wholesale and retail, often sourcing goods from Italy as well as China”. Italy has about 330,000 Chinese residents, according to estimates in the report.

The arrangement in Prato to a certain extent suits both Italy and China. Chinese entrepreneurs lease premises from Italian owners and employ Chinese workers who quickly and efficiently churn out goods for “fast fashion” brands that want quick delivery and low transport costs. Prato’s traditional activity of the production of fabrics and yarns was dying, Cavicchi says. Chinese business acumen has taken the city in a new direction.

Labour conditions

But the arrangement is also problematic. Many Chinese migrants arriving in Prato do so without the proper papers. Many factories operate illegally. Wages are low – too low for most Italians – and there is a risk of unsafe conditions and exploitation. In December, seven workers died in a fire at a Chinese-run factory, where they were sleeping in cubicles made of cardboard.

Bin Wu, a senior research fellow at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, Nottingham University, and one of the authors of the Ecran report, says a number of factors can make even documented Chinese workers easy to exploit. They lack the language skills that would make them employable in European-owned factories, and they are unaware of their rights. They are bound by family and cultural ties that make it hard to step outside the Chinese community, though if Chinese workers “have sufficient language and confidence, they prefer European employers”.

Cavicchi says that in Prato it is often hard to distinguish legal from illegal operations, and the “problems are very serious”, including unfair competition with legal factories, substandard products, unpaid taxes and “dirty” money.

Local authorities are struggling to catch up. Until recently, Cavicchi says, “there was an evident undervaluation of the situation”, with “few inspections and no strategies to manage the occurrence”. Enforcement has become more proactive, but a long-term approach is also needed, Cavicchi says. Ultimately, “inclusion and integration” will be the answer.

ethical supply chains  factory workers  Human rights  Italian apparel  Risks 

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