New Fashion Trend: Chinese Labor in Italy’s Shadow Garment Factories

Kari Lydersen

New York’s Fashion Week, now wrapping up, was billed as relatively populist” and accessible to the common man or woman, given the economy. But that still meant clothes in the hundreds- or thousands-of-dollars range.

Fashion, of course, is largely about image, and even when buying low-end garb, many people are likely to gravitate toward clothes made in Italy, as images of Milan runways and seaside villas dance in their heads. 

But as The New York Times reported recently, many of these clothes are actually made by low-paid, often undocumented Chinese workers laboring in an Italian shadow economy of factories (often Chinese-owned) that frequently open, close and change names to avoid government regulation.

It could almost be described as an inverted form of outsourcing – rather than moving garment production to China or other Asian countries, as a bulk of apparel-makers did in the past 30 years, Chinese workers are flooding Italian cities to make the clothes there.

For example, in the city of Prato near Milan, the Times notes:

The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.

The influx of migrant workers apparently means many are living in poor housing conditions, offering ample opportunity for exploitation by employers or landlords and – authorities have said – an increase in human trafficking, organized crime, robbery, prostitution, money-laundering and other crimes.

The situation has raised many parallels to undocumented Latino workers in the United States. Reportedly the influx of migrants has led to xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment among local Italians, who resent the cultural and demographic shift in their communities and feel like the newcomers are stealing jobs.” As has been the case in the U.S. in recent years, Italian officials have stepped up raids on workplaces with undocumented workers.

The Times sums up the situation with an interesting twist:

But what seems to gall some Italians most is that the Chinese are beating them at their own game — tax evasion and brilliant ways of navigating Italy’s notoriously complex bureaucracy — and have created a thriving, if largely underground, new sector while many Prato businesses have gone under. The result is a toxic combination of residual fears about immigration and the economy.

But as in the U.S., people who blame immigrants for financial distress are often oblivious to the fact that the newcomers are usually creating economic stimulation and hence jobs and opportunities for everyone, reinvigorating communities that were often losing population or economically stagnating before.

Just as the desire for a Made in Italy” label is fueling the importation of Chinese low-wage undocumented workers, the drive for Made in the USA” labels has helped create such sweatshops on U.S. land. Before being lifted five years ago, U.S. quotas on textile imports fueled both shadowy sweatshops in Manhattan and a booming industry on the U.S.-controlled Northern Mariana Islands, namely Saipan. The Saipan garment industry disappeared with the quotas.

There is one significant difference from the U.S. immigrant labor situation. The Chinese companies in Italy are, at least according to Italian officials, primarily launched and owned by Chinese entrepreneurs, perhaps even as part of a concerted campaign by the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, the dichotomy in China continues. Even though its low-wage, plentiful, vulnerable workers make it a destination for global companies seeking cheap labor, Chinese fortunes are rising enough that Western conveniences and luxuries are a burgeoning market – including a taste for high fashion. Indeed, China has a popular fashion week of its own.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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