The reality of Chinese migrants in Italy: is this true exploitation?

The Chinese community has been living in Italy since many years already, but it grew up rapidly mostly during the last decade. According to the statistics, there are 270,000 Chinese people residing legally in Italy, which makes the community one of the largest in the country, after the Romanian, the Albanian and the Moroccan. However these statistics do not include the large amount of Chinese people living illegally in Italy, or those who gained the Italian citizenship. 

This community is known for the hard process of integration, which is not well-seen by parts of the Italian population. Just think that in the city of Treviso, the Chinese shop owners had to remove their lanterns and traditional signs because they were considered “too oriental”. Many Italians say Chinese people do not want to integrate with the Italian population: they do not want to learn our language and follow our laws and traditions, and they are seen as true exploiters of manpower.

In the past few days the news spoke about a disaster that happened in Prato, a city in Tuscany with one of the highest rates of Chinese residents in Italy, where a fire destroyed a factory run by Chinese nationals killing 7 of them who were sleeping in the factory during the night. This sparked a lot of controversy about the fact that the Chinese labor is considered “illegal” and that they should regulate their factories according to the local standards. We can see many people working day and night shifts, children working in textile factories, girls working as prostitutes. Why is this happening?

Those who find employment in factories are often treated like slaves and forced to work in inhuman conditions. Some of the run-down buildings that you can find in Prato hide illegal factories where the Chinese workers are forced to work impossible schedules. In case of inspection by the police, an undercover guard set an alarm that sets off a chain of events that make all the illegals hide in dungeon-style basements.
Many of these people arrived in Italy relying on human traffickers, who are said to have built a market of Chinese specialized workers to place in Italian textile factories in cities like Milan, Rome and Prato.
A couple was interviewed by a journalist: they said they paid $50,000 each for their illegal journey to Italy. The amount included transportation and documents, including fake transit papers that would prevent a possible arrest and repatriation to China if they get caught by the Italian police. The woman was planning to join her sister who is already working in Prato in one of those factories. She doesn’t speak Italian, as she had been told she won’t need it. Her husband, who learned basic Italian before arriving, was planning to work in Rome for his relatives who have a Chinese store until he earns enough money to start his own business.
The couple has the right kind of documentation to allow them some kind of protection, but many Chinese are living so far unnoticed that no one really knows who they are or where they are.
In June, a headless torso which is believed to belong to a Chinese migrant was found in the Venice lagoon. No one ever claimed the body. Another victim was a man in his 60s, who was also found in the waters of the Venice lagoon not so long ago. The authorities are trying unsuccessfully to give these people an identity. No missing person reported in Italy matched either of the victims. Another episode happened in Prato, where a man was stabbed in the back while he was at an Internet point. Still nobody claimed to know this person. No one knows who he was.

Last March a wide investigation was opened after a Chinese boy of about 16 years of age who worked in a factory went to the ER under severe conditions of malnutrition and severely injured by a machine failure. The young man told the authorities that he had been working for 7 days a week, from 7am to midnight, for just 1 euro per hour. He slept in the factory, and part of his wage was deducted for room and board. He then was placed under protection and given a permit to stay in Italy in return for his cooperation with the police. Later, some videos filmed by Chinese workers who cooperated with the police revealed unbelievable working conditions and small children sleeping on mattresses on the ground amid rats and cockroaches.
“Chinese people sleep in factories because they often have no alternatives. Very few Italians would give a house for rent to a Chinese.” Said the cultural mediator of Prato’s Chinese community Ye Huiming.

People who do not find employment in factories then turn to prostitution to earn the necessary to live, because of the competitiveness of jobs in the textile market. These people run serious risks of exploitation too. Early in August this year, in Milan, three Chinese women jumped from a first-floor balcony to escape what they reported as months of imprisonment as sex slaves for fellow businessmen. They sought for help and they were interviewed by the local police. They reported they were asked to work as masseuses in an apartment in Milan, and they all fell in this trap.
The massage market run by Chinese in Italy is also very popular. You can find many massage centers run by Chinese people in Italy, and many have been closed after the police discovered they were nothing but prostitution centers where for an extra price you could get some other kind of “service” by the very young (many times teenagers) girls working there. Many of these centers re-opened in other locations shortly after being closed for police inspection.
This is true exploitation (as well as real prostitution!) if you imagine how many hours these girls are working and trying to earn the highest fare by trying to prostitute themselves to the clients. They do not speak the language, but only a couple words needed to communicate with them.
Are these girls forced to do this? Do they really want to work in these places? Most of them come from very poor communities and do not have a proper education which would allow them to do something else.  The same happens for those people working in those 24h factories.

Huiming does not agree with the fact that Chinese people are “forced” to work by other people. He declared in an interview that “Most of the press does not know how the reality is, because there is no exploitation in Chinese factories, as they are not armored, nor the workers are trapped inside and prohibited to leave. Chinese workers are aware of what they are doing, and they autonomously decide what to do, without being forced by others. It’s the economic system’s fault, as it makes them work 20 hours a day. They have no alternatives, because if you do not complete the tasks you lose the commissioned work given by the big fashion industries.”
The question about the massage centres has not been answered though. Nevertheless, what happened in Milan in August should make people understand their conditions.

Luckily, not all Chinese dreams end in nightmares. Thanks to the legal factories run by Chinese people in Prato, the area has become the most successful fabric-dying and importing sector in Europe, and exports fabrics and products all around Europe and the world.
A project has been proposed by some Chinese industrialist who would invest €20 million to build an Italian-Chinese research center to train workers in the garment and textile industries, all funded by the government in Beijing. The project has yet to be approved by the City Council and is contested by some entrepreneurs in the garment industry, as well as the Tuscan regional government. According to those who support it, it would bring legal jobs and help control and possibly limit the production of counterfeit and contraband goods. Although, not everybody is sustaining this and some think it would be just another way to let Chinese people plunder the Italian and European economy.

Even without the implementation of the project, the Chinese immigration does not seem to vanish any time soon. And with it, the clash of cultures is likely to continue. However, it has been noticed that Italian-born Chinese are more likely to integrate with the local population and get more attention in the society they live in.


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