Bangladesh In Tuscany? Deadly Working Conditions For Immigrants Of Prato

Prato is Tuscany's second-largest city after Florence
Prato is Tuscany's second-largest city after Florence
Maria Corbi

On Sunday night a fire broke out in a garment factory in the Tuscan city of Prato, killing seven workers and injuring three in their makeshift on-site dormitories. The tragedy has prompted questions about the factory’s conditions and legality — as well as in other workshops operating in this manufacturing city north of Florence that has long been known in Italy for its growing number of Chinese-run textile businesses.

PRATO — After every disaster the statements of intention rain down: We will come and see, we'll take action, make arrests. “It’s as if they’ve only discovered this week how dangerous it is," says one local. "Just looking around here is enough to understand that the situation has been unsustainable for years.”

"Here" is Macrolotto — the industrial zone of the city of Prato, known worldwide for its textile industry, including the workshops and factories of some of the biggest labels in the fashion business. Today, the area is dominated by Chinese factories, and the people I have talked to are hardly surprised by last week’s tragic fire that killed seven.

The city is filled with 600,000 square meters of warehouses and, for the most part, populated by illegal immigrants. Macrolotto grew thanks to the silence of those who could have done something, and those who actively trampled on human rights and dignity in the name of pure profit.

All three branches of Italian police — the Guardia di Finanza, the State Police and the Carabinieri — had come and always found the same more or less obvious evidence of illegality, worker exploitation and tax evasion in each place. Large rooms with sewing machines, irons, leathers, glues and other toxic substances surrounded the children who lived here, and rarely got to see the light of day. And then the day came when they reached the right age and height, barely able to use the machines, and they were quickly pulled into the production vortex that make our bargain-priced clothes.

Bedroom in backpack

Meanwhile other businesses have been ruined by this unfair and unsafe competition that dominates by not playing by the rules, beginning with those meant to protect occupational safety. This illegal system has attracted the inevitable elements of organized crime, a racket of slave-workers in the hands of powerful Chinese families. An investigation launched by anti-mob prosecutors has suggested that nearly 5 billion euros has been laundered here.

Zhao must be about 30 years old, maybe younger, and although he’s been in Italy for eight years, he only speaks the most basic Italian. He has very limited contact with the local population — he used to live in one of these factories. It’s difficult to get him to talk because he’s afraid. I asked Zhao about the tragedy and his eyes veered off, his emotions vanished.

He comes from the eastern province of Zhejiang, like many who have come here to Macrolotto. He keeps his “bedroom” in a backpack: a rubber mat and a fleece blanket. He lives in the face of high risk that the police come to check identity documents, which forces him to change dorm at a moment’s notice. “The important thing is to work,” he says, “and send money home.”

The image of the seven victims from Sunday's fire make his words even sadder. The words of the authorities who rushed to the scene of the tragedy have instead begun to fade to nothing, blurred by the cold and their weakness.

Fast fashion

Back in the center of Prato, the largest Chinatown in Europe runs along Via Pistoiese, and you can see the wealth and power through the eyes of the exploited Chinese workers. Big cars and money transfer shops everywhere, which were turned inside-out last June in an investigation for suspicious transfers to China. About 10 billion euros was found — most of which was the result of tax evasion — as well as the sale of counterfeit and unchecked clothing.

Prato shops (Saiko)

There are ideograms written all over the walls and spit on the sidewalks. The Italians here just shrug their shoulders, defeated and angry, not so much out of intolerance towards their Eastern neighbors, but simply desiring to be left alone.

Anyone who has gone into the factories, like the Guardia di Finanza investigators, has found the situation beyond belief: niches made of cardboard or, at most, plasterboard, with common areas shared with colonies of mice and cockroaches. The babies’ cots are nestled next to damp and dirty walls, with some people sleeping under the machines, covered up by some material that they may later sew into clothes. These medieval scenes are from one of the busiest cities in Italy, where just 10 years ago the most beautiful fabric and textile factories were.

Today, the Chinese have taken over with "fast fashion," the kind that populates market stalls and store shelves. “In times of crisis,” says a stall owner, who arrived late in the evening to buy goods, “people want to spend less and the Chinese have prices two-thirds lower than the national retailers.” It’s always the same story.

“The problem isn’t with those who come to buy, but those who allow this to happen, ignoring the rules that protect workers and fair competition,” says Fabio, the son of a businessman who also sidestepped the rules to keep up with the market. “No names, please, because we Italians get butchered by the tax authorities, while the Chinese get away with it.”

Prato City Council member Aldo Milone was among the first to arrive in front of the ruined factory. “This tragedy, sorry to be a little cynical, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Milone says. “We have repeatedly told everyone what could happen in these ‘dormitory’ factories with poor electrical installations and workers smoking all the time.” In past controls, cigarettes were found on the floors beside highly flammable acrylic materials.

So, why has nothing been done? Milone points his finger at the national government, saying the city sent Interior Minister Angelino Alfano another dossier about Prato last November. "In four years, we have carried out checks on 1,200 out of the 3,500 companies here.” Now, the latest and cruelest number to add: seven poor people dead.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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