Not a brand new story of Chinese immigrants.
By Shulun Huang
It is an usual Sunday, December 1st, 2013. Many people are enjoying the weekend with their family. But the fire accident in a Chinese-owned factory snatched seven Chinese immigrant workers’ lives. The factory is located in Prato, Tuscany. Those Chinese workers both lived and worked at the factory, some have no identity authority to live in Italy. This accident has been widely reported, attracting worldwide attention.
The Italian authority, local procurator in Prato, started to investigate the accident immediately. After one year, reported by The Local, Lin You Lan, the manager of the factory was sentenced 8 years and 8 months in prison. Her sister Lin You Li was also found guilty. But this accident has been described as foretold as Roberto Pistonina from Italian Confederation of Worker’s Trade Unions, posted on his Facebook page to describe that hundreds of Chinese immigrant workers were "living and working in conditions of near-slavery." Many hard-working Chinese work day in and day out in Prato with a lack of enough concern about production safety.
"Made in Italy" is actually mostly made by Chinese, the clothing produced by Chinese cheap labor is "at a lightning pace for sale at rock-bottom prices" to occupy large quantity of the European garment market. Alongside with the terrible accident, competition, conflicts between Chinese immigrant group and native Italian group have been surfaced distinctly.
Prato, a miniature of globalization
Back in 1989, there were only 38 Chinese settled in Prato. The population has boomed since the 90s when thousands of Chinese immigrant moved to Prato to make a living, following the wave of globalization with less boundaries in population and commodity mobility. The complexity of globalization can be found in Prato, a town only half an hour away from Florence, the Renaissance jewel and the birth place of Italian commercial civilization. To be surprised, when Prato first gets in your sight, you might think there is a little China hiding inside Italy.
"Made in Italy" is a gilded signboard around the world. Significantly, Prato can represent the design and spirit of European clothes which can be traced back to the 11th century. It has become an industrial district 200 years ago. However, as the Chinese community grows very fast there in a typical 'Chinese' way, it changes the business ethos of Prato since Chinese immigrant workers are very hard-working and some are even taking advantages of the illegal loopholes. The local government and native Italians in Prato started to fight against this trend with their strong dissatisfaction towards the economy decline. They are afraid of losing the reputation of "Made in Italy" and most importantly, they are concerned about to whose pocket the money goes.
Looking at the past 25 years and the changes that have happened inside and outside the Chinese immigrant community in Italy might help to build up a solution to the conflicts. Globalization makes the world as a whole in some extent no matter physically or psychologically. Prato’s 'dilemma' is a mutual concern between local Italian, Chinese immigrants and even international society.
The rise of Chinese in Prato
Who are they? Where are they from? What are they up to here? How did it go from 38 to around 50,000 Chinese immigrants in Prato? One in every four people is Chinese. Prato has the largest regional percentage of ethnic Chinese in Europe. According to the Economist, there are only 15,000 Chinese under official registration. The rest of them might be illegal workers who hold a tourist visa and overstay. Approximately 5,000 apparel factories are operated by Chinese. According to People’s Daily, the main national newspaper in China, Chinese immigrants control 95% of the garment industry of Prato which used to be managed by local Italians a few years ago.
The changes have happened to "Made in Italy" which was used to be represented by small garment workshops way of production as what Antonella Ceccagno, an Italian expert in international immigrant study explained in 2000. "Small dynamic businesses that are mainly clustered in industrial districts, specializing in local production, are a distinctive feature of the Italian economy."
Since Italian has the tradition of "small firm-dominated diffuse production model," it is an ideal place for less schooling migrants to start their self-employment and success their dream of getting-rich-quick. Garment industry has relatively low threshold. When came the Italian policy encouraging more immigrants into the country during the 1990s, it brought low-skilled labor force by new migrants such as Chinese people who desired to change fate in an open, rich and developed continent with nice weather.
Following the traditional Confucian concept of 'family', Chinese are willing to bear heavy burden for the bright future of the family. In particular, the majority of Chinese immigrants in Prato is from Wenzhou, a east coastal city which is also known for its garment industry. Even in China, Wenzhou is a very impressive place with its pioneering entrepreneurship, which has lasted for centuries. Wenzhou people are very united and they are very concerned of collective interest inside the group of family, relatives, friends, fellow-villagers .
There were two Italian journalists, Raffaele Oriani & Riccardo Stagliano, who wrote a book called Immortal Chinese and stated that Chinese immigrants often come here with nothing, and they start up their own business within few years. They concluded the success pattern as a Chinese is to first work for another factory to save money then they will rely on credit from fellow-villagers which depends on their relationships (Guanxi) with the community - with people who are from the same region. They become their own boss step by step , working harder and harder.
When NHK filming the documentary of "Made in Italy, Made by Chinese" in 2012, it mentioned the regular dinner hosted by some Chinese region communities. This dinner association is more like an informal financial association where fellows can discuss about funding and help each other in business. They stick together abroad to go through all the difficulties, copying the Chinese way of doing business which relies more on interpersonal relations (which relates to Chinese differential mode of association & organizational mode of association by Xiaotong Fei) but lacks of legal consciousness about Italy.
"Pronto Moda" is in danger
Pronto moda, Prato-style, is a slogan of reverse globalization.
The increasing Chinese immigrants, in order to root in Italy, are eager to earn more money by using lower price strategy. Quantity garment production made in Italy but made by Chinese has pushed so called "ready to wear fashion" facing to low-end consumers. It is occupying the market share of traditional "Made in Italy" which is represented by slow, fine, expensive clothes making. The Italian locals start to worry about the reputation of "Made in Italy".
Meanwhile, alongside with Italy’s economic decline since the 2008 Euro crisis, Italy has been stuck with "no end in sight to economic decline." On the contrast, the number of Chinese-run companies in Italy has increased by 26% in 4 years after 2008 according to China News. The sale in Europe of the Chinese-run enterprises is around 8 billion RMB per year (by NHK reporting).
Driven by the ambitions of making more profits of the newer and cheaper production method, some Chinese-run companies are violating health and labor regulations. By hiring a large number of Chinese illegal workers, squeezing cost by extending working hours (shifts up to 16 hours per day), lower industrial safety standard, etc. Reuters criticized in its article from 2013, "Insight: Italy's Chinese garment workshops boom as workers suffer," by pointing out the Chinese companies illegal behaviors that includes "using fabric smuggled from China, evading taxes."
No wonder the native Italians are unsatisfied with the current situation. Chinese immigrants are earning more and more money, taking local resources and advantages of free trade agreement of the European Economic Area. Yet there is no direct money going into Italian individuals' pocket, instead, Chinese immigrants are disrupting local economic order by their rules. The high national unemployment rate has lasted for 3 years. Until February 2015, there was 12.7% of unemployment with 42.6% among the age of 15-24 years old according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT). The situation might be worse in Prato as the numerous Chinese-run companies prefer to hire cheaper Chinese workers while the local employment rate was around 7% in 2013 (ISTAT).
Reported by DW, two-thirds of the Chinese living in Prato are illegal migrants, which refers to local governmental statistical data. Aldo Milone, a local senator once deemed that 90% of the Chinese-run factories of Prato break the law in different extents.
In recent years, Italian authorities put harder efforts to control Chinese-run business. The polices irregularly knocked Chinese-run enterprises. On 18 June 2012, a massive campaign-style law enforcement began with helicopters flying over the China town of Prato and ended up knocking off over 20 Chinese-run enterprises. Also presented by NHK, some Chinese restaurants were closed because owners did not speak Italian. It is easy to witness the anger towards each other in public hearing and the media reporting represented by both sides.
The changes happening right now
There are some Chinese businessmen who try harder to protect their rights and gain approval as they regard themselves as an important part of Italian garment industry. They keep on working, paying taxes, building international trades. "Black factory" should not be the only label of Chinese immigrants. A PhD Chinese researcher, Ting Deng, who is doing field work in Italy, mentioned that illegal workers are relatively less now as many of their identities are being legalized. However, they might evade tax when signing up for working contract extension.
Fuqiang Chen, a garment merchant from Wenzhou, who started to do business in Prato in 2000, now runs a garment company called 'Monda Italy' which has a variety of price ranges from retail, customization to whole sale selling. And its e-commerce platform is in 4 languages including English, Italian, French and Chinese.
Growing Chinese associations in Prato are playing a positive role in protecting rights: as an old saying goes in Chinese, "Union is the strength". Under Mr Chen, the chairman’s effort, Chinese Garment Industry Association of Italy will be officially established on June 17th this year. "In case to extend our market share, we should first have a stable environment for doing business," he said. The association has made an arrangement with a local security company to protect the safety of the workers since injuries to person and property have increasingly happened to Chinese people recently.
In the respect of local Italians, the Italian authority hosted public hearings and invited Chinese merchants to discuss "should the Chinese firms be limited in using labels of ‘Made in Italy’?" A Chinese questioned, "The major amount of taxes are paid by us, why the government should require to limit our using right of ‘Made in Italy’?", at last, the mayor announced that the Chinese-run firms will be shut down thoroughly if there is any illegal activity. The discussion and communication between the two groups does not work well and there seems to be no clear instruction and solution so far.
"There are part of people who are moving back to China. But in my case, I know it is not easy to expand the market in China as I am not familiar with the environment anymore. However, Italy, Europe is the market I know well.” Mr Chen sounds confident about his business landscape based in Italy.
There are reasons for Chinese businessmen to cheer up. Some of the enterprises are upgrading their garment industry by hiring Italian designers and tailors to improve clothing technology into high-end clothing making. Meanwhile, the booming economy in China makes some of them sense the potential chances as they have both Chinese and Italian background. The good economic relationship between Italy and China which can be seen from those three Chinese corporations’ pavilions in Milan Expo, encourages more transnational cooperation to help economic recovery.
Besides, more and more Chinese students studying arts in Italy start up their own business. Miss Qian, who studied oil painting, has lived in Italy for over 5 years, now she works as a photographer and also owns a wedding dress shop called Flora with her partners in Milan. For overseas students like Miss Qian, their fate is not exactly bonded with the family. She both works and enjoys a crossover life including start-up business and own interest in Italy.
Moreover, the younger generation of the Chinese immigrants are more easy to get involved in the Italian society as they are Italian native speaker. Lifan is from the second generation, and has no obstacle in making Italian friends. He claimed that he does not want to inherit his family business while he is more willing to work for Italian companies. The second generation is more open-minded than their parents. His long term plan might be leaving Italy to other western European countries to make a better living. The choice of younger generation has shown their new ambition is more individualism which is different from their parents. Furthermore, they have more citizen consciousness under Italian education. Italy is somewhat considered as a homeland for them.
Where is the future?
Both the Chinese and the Italian need to make efforts to understand each other and have more efficient communication without bringing too much emotions. It has been a hard time for Italian government to rethink their law and political systems which relates to its economic recovery practices. Meanwhile, the Chinese immigrants might slow down the pace in their busy business. Let us come up with a long-term plan together.
Shulun Huang is a Chinese journalist currently based in London.