Thousands of Italy's Chinese immigrants work long hours in sweatshop-style clothing factories. But an EU-funded project has tried to bring these small Chinese businesses in line with European work regulations.
Thousands of Chinese laborers work in the Italian textile industry
There's a particularly high concentration of Chinese immigrants in the neighboring regions of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. Many of them work in the textile industry, producing leather goods and clothing. While many Italians might admire these Chinese for their business acumen and resourcefulness, there's also concern that Chinese workshop and factory owners are exploiting their workers and even abusing child labor laws.
With the help of a grant of over 1.5 million Euros ($1.9 million) from Brussels, the development organization Spinner in Emilia Romagna has been encouraging Chinese entrepreneurs to legalize their businesses by conforming to Italian standards.
The staff at Spinner said there has been an explosion of Chinese immigration in Emilia Romagna over the past decade. Spinner's economist, Stefano Borsari, said their presence has had a strong impact on the local economy.
"The Chinese community is working for the Italian community," Borsari said. "It's not an economy or a world apart. All of these firms are making jobs for our firms, like subcontractors for the local fashion industry."
Spinner is a project to aid integration
There are now around 1,300 Chinese-owned small businesses in the region -- all operating in the fashion sector -- and employing about 13,000 Chinese laborers. But are these businesses acting legally as part of the local economy?
Chinese seamstresses work long hours
Borsari said trying to ensure that Chinese bosses adhere to Italian labor laws hasn't been easy. The immigrant Chinese have attracted their fair share of negative press: working hours, as well as health and safety conditions are far less regulated in China than they are in Italy. This means the way Chinese employers treat their workers is perceived here as exploitative.
Illegal immigration is also an issue. The regional authorities can only estimate, but they believe around one in ten Chinese workers doesn't even have a residence permit. The fact that the Chinese community is notoriously close-knit and impenetrable has not improved matters. Borsari said all these factors highlighted the need for a project to aid integration.
"Five years ago in Emilia Romagna, people felt afraid," Borsari said. "There wasn't any contact between the Chinese community and local institutions or associations." He said the competition between Chinese and local entrepreneurs generated social conflict.
Intercultural mediators build the necessary bridges
Although there haven't been any incidents of violence, there has been plenty of local protest over unfair competition. Many Italian-owned small businesses have closed down or been bought out, leading indignant protesters to call for the Chinese to go home.
Many Italian designs are sewn by Chinese immigrants
As well as trying to tackle the problem of hostility, Spinner's primary focus has been on business practice inside the Chinese workshops. But it's not at all easy to gain access to these workshops, said Rossella Cecchini, one of Spinner's sociologists.
Cecchini is very familiar with the difficulties of setting up communication channels with the Chinese -- one of the most isolated immigrant groups living in Italy today.
"So we decided to start to work with Chinese intercultural mediators, who went into the different firms to try to gain their trust," Cecchini said. They explained that the project was trying to help Chinese integrate into Italy. The mediators tried to make clear what duties, but also opportunities, there are living in Italy.
A Chinese face helps open doors
Spinner's initial contact with the Chinese workshop and factory owners always goes through Chinese mediators like Hau Xu. He said he helps businesses with documents and Italian law.
The Spinner team said this interaction would be impossible without the Chinese mediators. It's not just the familiarity of a Chinese face that helps open doors, but much more importantly, the need for someone who can communicate with them in Chinese.
Hau said he never comes to a workshop without being bombarded with requests for advice or assistance, usually relating to residence papers and fiscal issues. Hau has been living in Italy since 1990 and has been working as an intercultural mediator since 1998. He said it's not easy. Most of the immigrants in Emilia Romagna come from a different Chinese province than him and speak a different dialect. And he doesn't always get a warm welcome.
"Of course, it's a very different kind of experience," Hau said. "I remember the first time I went to one workshop, the workers said: 'the boss is not here and what do you want?' I brought some materials and just said: 'give this to the boss' and then I left. It was very difficult."
Reaching the Chinese community on the radio
Spinner has compiled a bilingual manual in Chinese and Italian, which they give out to as many Chinese businesses as possible. The manual contains comprehensive guidelines for every aspect of running a business in Italy: from fiscal and contract laws, health and safety, to advice about banking and useful associations.
Information is also relayed over the airwaves
But the Spinner team also came up with another novel way of communicating with the immigrant community: radio programs for Chinese in Chinese, which have been broadcast on local stations. Every program was about one theme, which was important for working in Italy.
"The Chinese work long hours in the firms, even during the night, and they always or very often listen to music or to the radio," Cecchini said. "So that was another channel to get information to them."
Chinese community has opened up to Italian practices
Cecchini and Borsari said that in the five years they have been running the project, they have managed to initiate direct contact with about 25 percent of the Chinese businesses in the region. It seems their hard work is paying off.
"In the last few years, the local police who usually make controls say that things have improved," Cecchini said. "The places respect the legal standards, while five years ago, many firms were located in garages or cellars or in old country houses." She said they have also noticed a change in the behavior of the entrepreneurs.
"They are interested in understanding the rules," Cecchini said.
Cecchini and Borsari said the project and the funds provided by the EU have helped open up the Chinese community and made it more accessible and accountable to Italian business practices. Although the project is now coming to an end, they hope its positive results will inspire similar initiatives for Chinese integration throughout Italy and even in other European countries.