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What does the famous' ‘Made in Italy’’ truly mean? Is ‘made in Italy’ synonymous to ’locally made’ and does that mean it is sustainable?  

When most of us see a leather garment with the label ‘Made in Italy’, we are automatically overcome with feelings of admiration. Our fingers touch the materials, and we think we are touching something automatically linked to a historical savoir-faire, representing Italian craftsmanship and guaranteeing higher quality. Thus, we think of this label as being the Italian trademark of a unical expression of the long relationship between art, manufacturing and progress. Today, this label has reached the utmost of admiration for the excellence and leadership of Italy in regards to the fashion industry especially. However what most do not know is that Italy hosts a certain number of illegal factories in which Asian immigrant workers are subjected to unlawful work conditions. In fact, even before the creation of the ‘Made in Italy’ in the 1990s, Italy already relied on silk that came from China. This tag, from its genesis, coincided with the beginning of outsourcing in China, and thus never meant what the majority assumed it did. It took almost two decades, but in 2009 finally a law was passed (Law no.166 of 20 November) which said that an item with a tag ‘100% Made in Italy’ or ‘All Italian’ must have its products made entirely in Italy, from design to packaging. Nonetheless, this law came thirty years too late.


How Prato became the foremost European exporter of low and middle-end “Made in Italy” fashion and how it is not by Italian hands but migrant workers. 

 The issue does not only lie in outsourcing but in the illegal chinese immigrant population that has now grown for over 40 years. In the 1980s, Chinese immigrants started to arrive in Italy, largely owing to the fact that it coincided with China opening its labor markets to the world. This migration influx was particularly located in the Northern Italian regions (this was the economic epicenter of the country) and with a particular interest to an already famous manufacturing town; Prato. This also occurred simultaneously with an economical crisis which allowed thousands of chinese migrants to invest in the textile industry and open small workshops. After 40 years, we cannot turn a blind eye anymore to the fact that they’re working conditions have been entirely characterized by low compliance with Italian labor law and if they become too expensive, new arrivals from Pakistan and Africa will be willing to work for less. The stagnant economy allowed for a lack of supervision and factory audits and this was the scene for the beginning of abuse, for allowing the ‘Made in Italy’ tag to thrive internationally at the cost of another’s underpayment, malnourishment and sometimes even, life. It is time to combat the absence of workers' protection, and to create a new approach to law enforcement. 


    Prato, at the heart of Tuscany, has always been a center in Italy for the production of high quality textiles. However, for centuries these businesses were family owned by artisans and other skilled workers. As soon as high street and fast fashion retailers were born, everything about the textile industry changed, and almost all the traditional businesses have been replaced by abused lower class individuals all around the world. In Prato, today we can now see that more than 5,000 businesses are manufacturing cheap and low-end fashion garments made out of imported materials from China, owned by hard working Chinese migrants, and to be sold and exported for cheap all around the world. A lot of what these migrants make, they send back to their homeland with some estimating that amounts to a sum of around $1.5 million a day. By the end of the 2000s, Chinese migrants operated between 4,000 and 5,000 enterprises in Prato and owned one out of four of them. In 2010, records showed that Prato had the second largest Chinese community in Italy (11,900), nonetheless scholars and police reports claimed that the illegal migrant population was etween 20 to 43%. As a consequence, many businesses not related to the textile industry in Prato have taken advantage of these willing migrants by renting out rooms, manufacturing space to them and employing them for wages well below an accepted livable rate. Why are they willing? Simply because the Italian wage is still higher than if they were working in China. Nonetheless, most of the factories do not have any safety codes and still receive manufacturing permits despite the awareness of the owners (Italians) and managers (often Chinese) of the human rights violations. An article from 2013 quoting Prato’s chief prosecutor Piero Tony saying that the textile factories are like the Far West makes us question the ethicality of the condition and whether  anything has been done at all? Piero Tony says “Controls on security and issues relating to the workers are inadequate despite the efforts of local authorities and law enforcement officials. We are under equipped as a bureaucratic structure, we’re designed for a city that doesn’t exist any more, the city of 30 years ago.” Today, authorities are still struggling and the special task force they set up in 2010 involving local officials and law enforcement has almost worsened the situation as it collided with the continuing and increasing economic recession which made Prato’s officials cut most resources.

Human rights violations that have been hiding under the “Made in Italy” label
  • Between 2013 and 2017, 10 Chinese workers died due to inhumane working schedules and illegal housing conditions. 

  • Many workers live and sleep in the factories, storing their belongings amid rolls of fabric

  • Most workers survive on solely 70 cents, which is the amount they’re given per shirt they make 

  • Seamstresses can earn 90 euro cents a dress — about $1.50—if they work all night in small workshops. A man can earn up to 500 euros a month—$700—if he works all his waking hours.

  • Most work for an average of 14 hours every day. 

  • Chinese workshops often last two years, then closing and reopening under a different name to evade checks by tax authorities. Illegal immigrants that are found by the police are ordered to leave the country within five days, but no one actually monitors this either.

  • On December 1st, 2013, the risks that many of the Chinese and Italians in Prato have taken culminated in a horrible factory fire where 7 Chinese workers died in the flames. The windows of the factory were guarded with metal bars and the doors were locked, so there was no escape. 

  • The first time that Prato decided to open a public investigation on the working conditions in the factories was prompted by the death of a 16 year old. Regulations should not be made only when the government has decided to ignore the problem for so long that it escalated to the malnourishment of a child worker who showed up in an emergency room covered in severe injuries from factory machine malfunctions. There had been so much evidence pointing towards conditions which resemble slavery and sweatshops, that people purposefully ignore

  • Also in 2013, 75 people in France and Spain were arrested due to bringing to Italy Chinese workers that were human-trafficked. 

All the positive aspects that the original Chinese migration influx to Italy created: 

  • The Chinese workers contribute to 20% of Prato’s GDP. 

  • Prato is Italy’s most international city. 

  • Prato hosts among the biggest Sino-Italian cultural events in Italy

  • Prato has become an example for cities wanting to adopt long-term integration strategies. 

  • Italy is China’s fifth largest commercial partner for trade volume.

  • On 23 March 2019, Italy became the first of the G7 countries to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is the largest transnational development project since the Marshall Plan implemented by the US government to boost investment in post-World War II Europe. The BRI’s aim is to link China and Europe, similarly to the ancient Silk Road which connected these two separated economies centuries ago.

  • Chinese migrants have transformed a relatively small provincial town into the largest concentration of their enterprises and factories in Europe. 


What are the efforts that the Italian government is making to change this situation? 

  • The Belt and Road Initiative works to improve the current partnership between China and Italy and promises to improve the labor rights of the Chinese workforce. One of the pillars of the BRI agreement rests on ‘people-to-people connectivity’ which pledged to respect human rights and high environmental standards in its industrial production. Today nonetheless we have seen no specific action plan in place

  • This raises many questions. How far is Italy ready to go to secure Chinese investment in the country? Will the Italian government turn a blind eye on the rights of those Chinese immigrants working tirelessly every day to contribute to boosting Italy’s manufacturing sector?  

  • Since 2003, there has been a 232% increase in the amount of businesses owned by Chinese in Italy. 

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