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.
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.
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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.