The factory, which is actually a combination storage space with truck bay, sat abandoned with piles of burned debris outside. The neighboring factories continued business as usual on Monday, a day after the fire ripped through the workshop, killing seven workers as they slept inside.

In the world of the fast fashion, production cannot stop until the goods are finished. When a factory has only 15 employees in order to avoid the watchful eyes of the authorities, the shifts will be 18 to 24 hours long, seven days a week.

The authorities believe that a portable cookstove is the source of the fire, which would make sense because in Prato, Italy, the Chinese factory owners (of which there may be as many as 5,000) disable the central heating in their factories. They refuse to pay for heat for their workers. They also disable the heat in the apartment buildings they have bought from cash-strapped Italians over the last ten years. At a recent gathering in a three-bedroom apartment, shared by at least seven workers and four children, we kept our winter coats on the entire evening, like we used to do in China in the early 1980s before central heating. Was I in Italy or China? I asked myself several times.


At an emergency meeting of the Prato city council last Wednesday the scene was somber in the wood-paneled meeting room, where an incredibly ornate ceiling and hand-sewn silk tapestries decorate the walls, reminding visitors of Prato’s long history as a textile center from medieval times. The meeting began with two minutes of silence while the city’s bells rang in memory of the dead.

The building where the city council meets dates to the 13th century, and Prato’s leaders are well aware of what is at stake.

“This could be the future of Italy,” Edoardo Nesi, the culture commissioner of Prato has said. “Italy should pay attention to the risks.”

The Chinese consul general from nearby Florence put in an appearance, shedding a tear as she proclaimed the Chinese government’s newfound desire to change the brutal exploitation of workers that has been Chinese factories’ modus operandi in Prato for the last 15 years. Were this to happen, it would mark a fundamental shift in policy.


However, in conversation later with a few workers, none of them expressed hope that the consul’s words will come become reality. When they call the Chinese Consulate on the phone for assistance they are usually hung up on. They described the “bad attitude” of the government bureaucrats they’ve dealt with. “It’s not like the warm relationship you have with your embassies and consulates in the West. Our government offices here don’t want to hear from us and don’t want to help.”

Workers I’ve interviewed in Prato over the last two years have said that the Chinese government is unhelpful regarding their plight, and is more interested in the approximately $1 million a day wired to China from Prato’s 5,000 registered and unregistered factories. Specifically to Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, resulting in an economic boom in both provinces.

“How can China leave a mark like this in the E.U.?” the mayor, Roberto Cenni, has asked in frustration, his efforts to engage with the Chinese consul fruitless over the years.

“Noise, bad habits, prostitution. People can’t live anymore. They’re sick of it.”

Local journalist and expert on Prato’s Chinese business community Silvia Pieraccini has written about Italian officials’ inability to persuade the Chinese government to address the growing crime problem, the unsafe factories, and the trafficking network that brings workers overland from China and into Italy illegally. Estimates range from 15,000-30,000 undocumented Chinese workers living in Prato today.

Despite the undocumented status, they hide in plain sight once they have purchased forged residence documents, courtesy of a corrupt local bureaucracy. The permits take approximately two years to earn. This is two years at a minimum of 16 hours a day, seven days a week, which is only possible after they’ve paid off their €10,000-30,000 debt for the transport from China to Italy. I overheard a permit broker offer to prepare two permits for a woman for €8,000 (for her husband and third daughter, born in China, where the one-child policy has been widely ignored over the past fifteen years. The discussion of China’s underreported census numbers is a topic for another day.)


The initial trafficking debt takes from one to three years to re-pay, according to every worker I have spoken to. Once the Chinese immigrants have their residence permits, which do not get challenged by the authorities because they are indistinguishable from valid documents, they continue to avoid interacting with Italian society, often to their detriment. They are (under)paid in cash and do not call the police when robbed, which happens frequently on Prato’s unsafe streets. The Chinese underworld has come to Prato, running gambling and prostitution businesses, and serves as muscle in disputes between rival factory owners. I met a man who said he’d trashed a factory, as retaliation in a feud, and spent two years in an Italian jail. Western Union and other wiring services have absconded with workers’ funds, never wiring the money to China as promised, disappearing overnight. Reports to the authorities are not made, of course.

Occasionally a dead body has been found on the streets, with no clue as to how the young men died. Most people think they died of exhaustion from working more than 30 hours at a stretch (which many I spoke to said they have done in the past), but no one knows for sure, including the authorities who sometimes cannot even find out the names of the dead. One former worker I spoke to said at her factory the owner put workers in the dumpster wrapped in a plastic bag when they died. Dead workers’ residence permits are quickly taken and used by others, no death reported. Hence the saying, “No Chinese ever die in Italy.”

Anything is possible in the Prato factories, so the news that there was a very young child in the factory during the fire who escaped with his parents comes as no surprise, just a shake of the head. The children live in the factories with their parents and in many cases do not go to school. Of the more than 20 workers I have interviewed on this topic, none said their child attended school in Italy. That isn’t universal, however, and I do see Chinese and Italian school children together on the streets of Prato. It is one of the positive signs that things will be better in the future.

One of the powerful local unions, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), held a vigil and march in Chinatown late last week. Unfortunately, none of the Chinese knew it was a union carrying the banner, or what it said. They said they assumed the banner said something to the effect of “We express our condolences for what happened.”

In fact the union is trying to get Chinese workers to join them and organize the factories: an obvious solution. One worker did go to the union last week after the fire, but she left without giving her name or following through with her complaint, when told she would need to give full identification details which would be made available to her employer.

Italian law requires that workers give their names and their factories name when denouncing their employers, a deal-breaker in this Chinese community. Without anonymity and the promise of instant residence permits, getting Chinese workers to ally with CGIL is unlikely.

This post originally appeared at The Lab @Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and is posted here with permission.