Human Trafficking

08.20.134:45 AM ET

Italy’s Garment-Factory Slaves

Barbie Latza Nadeau reports on the growing number of Chinese immigrants trafficked into Italy to work in inhumane conditions at the country’s garment factories or in the sex trade.

Aside from the cobbled streets and terra cotta rooftops, the Via Pistoiese that dissects the Tuscan town of Prato outside Florence is not like other Italian streets. You won’t smell sautéed garlic here. Instead the pungent smell of peanut oil and dongpo pork permeates the air. The storefront signs are almost all in Chinese hanzi on vertical ribbons of red or blue with tiny Italian translations across the bottom. The grocery stores carry classic Chinese staples like rice and bamboo shoots instead of pasta and cans of tomatoes. The faces, too, are almost all Chinese. “There is absolutely no integration. They live in their part of town and we live in ours,” says lifelong Prato resident Giovanni Braccini, 73, who has watched the slow evolution of his city into what he describes as a foreign capital. “You aren’t in Italy here,” he says. “This is China now.”

Chinese immigration into Italy has tripled in the last decade, according to Italy’s official statistical agency Istat, which estimates that more than 210,000 Chinese live in Italy, although only 41,000 are legally registered. The number of Chinese-owned businesses has grown by 232 percent across the country since 2003, with the largest influx into Milan, Naples, and Prato. Many of the Chinese who live in Italy illegally came to the country by way of human traffickers, in what is reported to be a made-to-order market for garment workers who have specialized skills for the ready-to-wear market. Last week 75 people in France and Spain were arrested as part of an intricate human-trafficking ring that brings such workers to Italy.

Jan and his wife, Li, who did not want to give their real names because they are in Italy illegally, arrived in Rome last January by way of such traffickers. They paid $50,000 each for transport and documents, including fake transit papers that will likely keep them from being repatriated to China if they are arrested by Italian police. Li’s sister works in Prato in a silk-dying factory, and Li is planning to join her when the factory hires new workers for the fall production season. Li doesn’t speak Italian, but she won’t need it in Prato, her husband says. Jan, who learned basic Italian before coming to Italy, will work for his relatives in Rome who have a Chinese five-and-dime store until he has enough money to start his own enterprise, he says. “We also have an Italian dream,” he told The Daily Beast. “We will make back our investment to come here.”

Jan and Li have the right kind of documents to allow them some protection, but many Chinese are living so far under the radar that no one knows who they really are. In June, a headless torso believed to belong to a Chinese migrant worker turned up in the Venice lagoon. No one has ever claimed her body. Another nameless Chinese victim, this time a man in his 60s, was fished out of the Venice lagoon last week. Authorities are searching for anyone who might know his identity. No one on any missing-persons list in Italy matches either of the Venice victims’ profile. This month a young Chinese man with documents under the name Zhou Zheng Guo was stabbed in the back as he surfed the Net at an Internet point in Prato. Authorities have posted pictures around town to try to find someone who may know his family to claim his remains. So far no one knows who he really was.

Those who do find work in the textile factories are often treated like slaves, working in sweatshop conditions. In Prato, dilapidated buildings with what amount to undercover guards out front hide expansive factories. When police come to inspect the premises, the guards reportedly sound alarms that set off a chain of events that often including hustling illegal workers into dungeon-style basements. In March the city of Prato opened a wide investigation to better understand working conditions in the factories after a young Chinese worker, believed to be around 16 years old, turned up at an emergency room malnourished and severely injured after a factory machine malfunctioned. He told authorities that he worked seven days a week for around €1 an hour, and his shift generally began at 7 a.m. and ended at midnight. He slept in the factory, and a portion of his wages paid for room and board. He was placed under social protection and given a permit to stay in Italy in return for his cooperation with the authorities. Undercover videos taken by other Chinese workers who acted as police spies then revealed unbelievable working conditions, with small children sleeping in mattresses on the floor amid rats and cockroaches.

Because of the vast number of workers competing for jobs, some illegal immigrants have turned to prostitution to earn a living. They also run serious risks of exploitation. In Milan in early August, three nude Chinese women ages 27, 32, and 26 jumped from a first-floor balcony to escape what they described as months of imprisonment as sex slaves for Chinese businessmen. One of the women sought shelter in a pharmacy, and two others jumped onto a city tram to escape. Police later brought the three women together, but they were unable to ascertain the exact address where they were held. The women didn’t speak Italian, and they did not even know which city they were in when they were rescued.

But not all Chinese dreams end in nightmares. Thanks to the legal Chinese factories in Prato, the area has become the most successful fabric-dying and importing sector in Europe, exporting fabrics and products all over the world. The Chinese industrialists of Prato have just promised to invest €20 million into a joint Italian-Chinese research center funded by the Beijing government that would train workers in the garment and textile industries. The project, which is contested by some in the garment industry and Tuscan regional government, has yet to be approved by the City Council. Those who support the project, like Tuscan regional president Enrico Rossi, say the collaborative effort would bring legal jobs and even help control some of the contraband products that are also made in some factories. But those against it, like Prato’s mayor, Roberto Cenni, say it will provide just one more way for the Chinese to “pillage the economy.”

Even without the research center, Chinese immigration doesn’t look like it will wane any time soon. And with it, the clash of cultures is likely to continue.