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Italian Jobs, Chinese Illegals


On a bright, sweltering morning a few days after Italy’s Aug. 15 holiday, during a week when most Italians were supine at seaside rentals, a squad of four female police officers pulled up on a leafy residential street in the Tuscan city of Prato. They parked in front of a 10-story cement apartment building, marched down a ramp, and pushed open a door into the building’s parking garage. Once their eyes adjusted to the dark interior, they spotted about 50 adults and children, who, it soon became clear, were all Chinese immigrants, living in an airless warren of gypsum cubicles. The group shared a single makeshift bathroom and a hobbit-sized kitchen with a plastic ceiling four feet off the floor. There was a freezer crammed with chicken feet and dried fish, and strips of dried meat hanging on clothes hangers.

Their sources of income were near at hand: 18 sewing machines coated in white lint, stationed next to plastic bags bulging with fabric—the raw material for dozens of identical white ladies’ shirts that the workers had been producing daily.

The policewomen rounded up the inhabitants and secured the sewing machines with red plastic cords. Then the officers started rummaging through the kitchen and filling out forms, charging the workers with living illegally in a factory. Some residents began packing belongings into garbage bags. A pregnant woman in a white negligee drifted past.

Prato police have been raiding Chinese-run factories several times a week for the past three years. Prato Police Chief Aldo Milone, who arrived on the scene after the bust, said the garage operation was better than many sweatshops because it had a few windows, although it was still stifling and dark. “Normally there are mice and rats on the floors,” Milone said. He gestured casually toward the workers. “They will just move to another factory tonight.”

Among those who would be searching for a new home was a pallid 35-year-old father of three who had taken the Italian name Enzo. Five years ago, his parents, farmers in the Fujian region of China, had saved €8,000 to send him to the factories in Prato. Enzo is what the Italians call clandestino—undocumented—and like most of the Chinese in Prato illegally, he entered on a tourist visa and simply stayed. But rather than working for Italians, he found himself employed by other Chinese immigrants who had come to Italy themselves and were taking over the factories. It was there that he took his Italian name and met his future wife, a small Chinese woman in jeans and a ponytail who stood wordlessly behind him as he told his story, speaking Chinese to a police translator. This raid wasn’t the first they’d lived through; they had been chased from another illegal workplace a year before. “Italy is not good for us now,” Enzo said. “I want to take my children back to China. We don’t have a hope of living here.”

 

Over the last 15 years, according to local officials, 40,000 Chinese immigrants have moved into the Tuscan town of Prato, population 188,000. The city has been famous since the Middle Ages for producing fine wools and other textiles, which artisans crafted into high-end clothing. Today, Prato produces 27 percent of Italy’s textile industry output. Now, though, the Chinese have introduced a newer, cheaper production method, and sometimes secretly produce goods for luxury brands, according to a 2007 Italian TV documentary called Slaves of Luxury. The Chinese substitution of cheap and fast for the Italian tradition of slow, fine, and expensive, has cut into the heart of Italy’s fashion industry and, by extension, into Italy’s economic culture as a whole.

There are now 5,000 Chinese-owned companies in Prato, 4,000 of which are in the garment business, according to financial journalist Silvia Pieraccini, who has written a book about Chinese migration to Italy. The city is home to the highest percentage of Chinese in Europe, reaching 25 percent of Prato’s population in 2008, just as the global economy was spiraling downward. Since then, relations between the natives and the newcomers have deteriorated. The Italians accuse the immigrants of taking their jobs and undermining their businesses; the Chinese say they are the victims of harassment and discrimination. It’s probably no coincidence that Prato became less officially tolerant of its Chinese immigrant population around the same time that Italy was entering a punishing recession that would leave 30 percent of young people jobless and send the national debt spiraling. For the last three years, authorities have mounted hundreds of what they call “blitzes,” or “controls,” on Chinese-owned factories in Prato.

The crackdowns involve local police, accompanied by national tax collectors and workplace inspectors, who arrive unannounced and close the factories on grounds of nonpayment of taxes and illegal residences in manufacturing facilities. Helicopters hunt down workers who flee out back entrances. In 2008, Prato police rounded up thousands of illegal workers they assumed to be Chinese. The actual impact of these measures is dubious, however. The Chinese embassy refuses to acknowledge these paperless individuals as Chinese nationals, so they can almost never be deported. Since the Italians have nowhere to incarcerate them, they simply issue citations.

The irony of the Prato community’s animus toward its Chinese immigrants is that the Chinese people may well end up rescuing Italy, and maybe even Europe, from its worsening economic crisis. In September, Italy became the first European country to admit to turning to China for bailout help; Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti met with Lou Jiwei, the head of the $400 billion Chinese sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp. (CIC), in an effort to persuade the Chinese to buy more Italian bonds and lighten Italy’s €1.9 trillion national debt load, according to the Italian government. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has signaled an openness to contributing to a euro rescue fund but linked that pledge to a demand that the Continent cease labeling China “a nonmarket” economy, a designation that puts legal restrictions on its ubiquitous cheap exports. The head of the bailout fund, Klaus Regling, returned from meetings in China on Oct. 28 without any commitments.

Either way, China’s influence on European business, society, and culture is growing. The Chinese have injected a hyperactive form of capitalism into the restrained, Italian way of doing business, creating a dynamic in which servants and masters have almost switched roles. That has engendered a mix of emotions among Italians, ranging from wounded pride to outright xenophobia. The uneasiness with which Italians and Chinese coexist in Prato is a metaphor for the cultural collisions that take place every day around the world as capital and workers alike seek new lands of opportunity, often at the expense of those already there. For the rest of Europe, it may be a sign of things to come.

 

Via Pistoiese, the teeming street that is the heart of Prato’s Chinatown, has changed dramatically since the days when Prato was a center of European culture. Renaissance master Fra Lippo Lippi once painted frescoes in the Duomo, and 16th century European pilgrims flocked to the city’s Madonna sanctuaries—places where the Virgin Mary had reportedly been seen. Now the Prato Italians have nicknamed the area San Pechino (Saint Beijing) because 90 percent of the property around Via Pistoiese is Chinese-owned. Restaurants hang red and gold shingles in Chinese lettering, with the Italian phrase “Tavola Calda”—hot food—scrawled in below because Prato officials ordered it by decree. Italian regulators routinely bust “parafarmacies” and erboriste selling Chinese herbs, protected animal products, or unregistered Viagra and Cialis.

The transformation of Prato began in the early 1990s when Italian textile producers began setting up sweatshops in China and then bringing some of that cheap labor into Italy. Poor Chinese seeking a better life heard there were jobs to be had in Prato and began flooding into the region using tourist visas and the services of so-called snakeheads, or Chinese people-smugglers. Soon, Chinese worker-entrepreneurs began opening their own factories in Prato, often buying them from Italians who were happy to sell their family businesses in the face of intensifying global competition. The new owners started producing goods faster and cheaper than their Italian counterparts.

The clothes these new Chinese factories—called pronto moda, for “fast fashion”—turn out can sport the precious “Made in Italy” label, long synonymous with quality. The foreign invasion of the fashion industry prompted Italy’s Parliament to pass a law narrowly defining “Made in Italy” in an attempt to limit it to true Italian artisans. Although the law now has a complicated “percentage” requirement, fabricators are able to get around it simply by assembling cheaply made, foreign elements into clothes or bags or shoes in Italy. And the big fashion houses circumvent it by farming out work to Chinese factories in Prato and elsewhere through Italian subcontractors and middlemen.

Rather than blame large corporations for working with cheap suppliers, many Italians fall back on a more nativist explanation: They argue that the Chinese deliberately colonized this prized sector of their national industrial heritage. The backlash has been both legal and political: In addition to the factory raids, historically leftist voters in Prato have been electing center-right candidates for the last few years, and support for extreme right-wing, anti-immigration parties has grown. All the while small, family-owned businesses, the backbone of the postwar Italian economy, are struggling, and the way of life and the Italian craftsmanship they support are under threat.

From his office in the 12th century city hall, Mayor Roberto Cenni, the first center-right politician elected in Prato after 63 years of Communist Party control, expresses open resentment. He believes that Chinese-owned businesses have an unfair advantage over Italian ones because the Chinese don’t pay taxes or follow labor laws. “In this crisis, our local businesses try to survive following the laws and paying taxes,” says Cenni, 57, who owns one of Italy’s largest textile companies, Sasch. “They see others doing business without following rules. We risk having an unbalanced town, where on one side you have people tired and mad, and on the other, a community that does whatever it wants because, in any case, they won’t really pay the consequences.”

Cenni is about to preside over the local celebration of the national holiday, Ferragosto, which in many ways encapsulates the culture clash now consuming Prato. The golden yellow summer afternoon is marked with a ritual opening of a reliquary holding the Virgin Mary’s belt, for which Cenni possesses one of three required keys, followed by a townwide watermelon-eating feast. Cenni falls into step with Prato’s pipers and drummers, a corps of men decked in sweltering wool fleur-de-lis-stamped tunics, blue tights, brown elf shoes, and rolled-edge, guild-style hats. They parade through the narrow streets to the main piazza, where Chinese families—many holding camcorders—stare.

As the Bishop of Prato steps out on the Donatello-designed balcony of the black and white Duomo, displaying the glass-encased holy belt to cheers from the crowd in the square, mayoral spokesman Maurizio Ciampolini observes the many Chinese faces in the crowd. “For the Ferragosto, sure, they are all here,” he says grimly. “They like to eat the watermelon. But it’s not enough! No! China leaves these black holes all around the world.”

Ciampolini and others in Prato’s political and business establishment are among those claiming that a sinister Chinese government plot is behind the immigration explosion in their community. Prato’s parliamentary deputy, Riccardo Mazzoni, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL party, is proposing laws to forbid Western Union (WU) money transfers between Italy and China and to give special economic support to Italian companies in Prato. “Prato has been chosen by the Chinese intelligentsia as the door by which to occupy the rest of Europe,” Mazzoni says. “And for 20 years, the political party in control here let the Chinese community proliferate like a vampire, depriving Prato of money and sending it away.” A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in Florence, Huang Ruikai, scoffs at the claim. “The increase in the number of immigrants is a manifestation of the continuous development of globalization,” he said. “Prato is the famous textile center in Europe, and the local policy is fairly favorable to immigrants, so it is much easier for them to obtain economic benefits. It’s very easy to understand why a large number of foreign immigrants go there to search for their own ‘European Dreams.’”

 

As in New York City, where waves of illegal Chinese arrived by land and sea from a single province, Fujian, Prato’s new arrivals hail mainly from the Wenzhou region, paying steep fees to get to Italy, often passing through Switzerland or Albania. It is estimated that of the 40,000 Chinese immigrants in Prato, at least half are undocumented, according to Giorgio Silli, Prato’s loafer-wearing councilor for immigration and integration policies. After working in the clandestine sweatshops to pay off their smugglers, earning €500 a month on average, the immigrants begin sending money back to China via Western Union or through underground Chinese banking systems known as fei-ch’ien, or “flying money.”

Silli believes there’s a Chinese mafia behind the transformation of his town. When asked whether any Chinese people serve as police or judges in Prato yet, Silli exclaims, “Assolutamente no!” Even though a quarter of Prato is now Chinese, it is against the law for non-Italians to hold official posts. Silli says that only 112 Chinese in Prato are registered to vote in the 2014 elections.

Life for the Chinese in Prato, and in Italy generally, is not easy. While many individual Italians treat them with compassion, official Italy is hostile to immigrants, and the nativist Lega Nord party, allied with the ruling Berlusconi party, has significant power in the government. Outbursts of anti-immigrant violence have occurred in larger cities, and Italy’s criminal networks prey on newcomers who can’t speak Italian.

Marco Wang is surely one of the brighter success stories to emerge here. Sitting at an upstairs table in the restaurant he owns off the Via Pistoiese, a 50-table operation with a glass case near the door displaying different dishes—pale chicken feet in oil and myriad vegetables that Italians have no names for—Wang lights his fifth Marlboro Gold in less than an hour and leans back in his chair. It is dinnertime, and the restaurant is filling to capacity with mostly young Chinese diners. At 45 years old, Wang is in cheerful possession of the universal midlife success symbols: He’s well-fed but not fat, drives a Mercedes, owns a thriving business, has money in the bank and a red-roofed Italian house in the Tuscan hills. His beautiful Chinese wife is downstairs, and his two teenaged sons are at the Mediterranean seashore with their soccer team. Wang expects them to become doctors or designers someday.

Wang arrived in Italy from Wenzhou in the early 1990s and worked 12 hours a day in a leather coat factory in Florence. Two decades later, he lives just outside Prato and enjoys all the legendary charms of Italian life, such as good food, long lunches, and generous summer vacations, all while reaping euros to send back to China. He represents an entirely new vision of the immigrant success story, that of a Chinese newcomer whose entrepreneurial drive has lifted him above many Italians. According to investigative journalist Pieraccini, immigrants such as Wang send a billion euros to China each year.

“A lot of Italians are complaining that we Chinese are taking their jobs,” Wang says. “But if the Chinese people could speak publicly, they would say the Italians just don’t have the will to do anything. When Chinese people see a business opportunity, they get together and take advantage of it, very quickly.”

With his first factory, Wang produced thousands of leather jackets during his busiest months and leveraged the proceeds to start an import-export business with another Chinese man and an Italian partner. They opened a factory in China to make clothes for French designers, which were shipped to Prato for distribution. Wang left his wife and sons in suburban Prato for three years while he managed the Chinese side of the business, which he says was making $10 million dollars a year in profit. Despite his success, Wang says “the truth is that the Chinese in Italy now, in this crisis, are worse off than the Chinese in China.” Newer immigrants, he says, struggle to comprehend and adjust to Italy’s welter of regulations. “When you ask about the laws, they hand you a five-inch-thick book,” he says. “The rules in Italy always change, so the poor, uneducated people have a hard time understanding what’s expected. And the Italian people are so critical of the Chinese because they don’t know the laws.”

Wang would like to slow his life down further and spend his later years running a small, quintessentially Italian business: a tobacco shop and coffee bar. Unfortunately, as a foreigner he can’t get a license to sell cigarettes and must wait until his Italian-born sons are old enough to apply in their names. Still, he feels less ostracized in his new home. After two decades in the bel paese, he’s started to see the benefits of the traditional Italian way of life that sometimes seems at risk of being lost.

For Wang’s Italian neighbors, his experience provides some measure of hope that Italy may ultimately change the Chinese as much as the other way around. “China is a land of sacrifice,” Wang says. “People work all their lives and get old and never enjoy life. Personally, I think Italy is beautiful. I like the beaches, the churches, the culture. But most of the Chinese coming here are poor, and they don’t appreciate things like Florence, with its Renaissance history.”

He goes on: “It is a huge adjustment for the lowest of the low to be among the highest. So we need to understand [the difficulties facing the new arrivals]. And maybe we Chinese can learn something from them about enjoying life.”

Burleigh is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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