Chinese Migrants Step Out of Factory Shadows in Italy

Chinese factory workers sew swim suits near the Italian coastal city of Rimini

Chinese factory workers sew swimsuits near the Italian coastal city of Rimini

Chinese immigrants have flocked to Italy to find work in the garment industry over the past decade. New arrivals are getting jobs in other fields and becoming more visible in Italian society.

The two men saunter up to the counter towards the young, female barista. Her dark hair is piled into a pony tail, and her stylish fringe trimmed neatly above her brow, frames her face.

“Ni hao!” they say. “Ciao, ciao,” she replies with a smile.

Ye Pei is 17 years old and comes from China. She has been living in Italy for just a few months. While her vocabulary is limited, she has picked up just enough Italian to serve cappuccino and mix drinks at the bar here in Falconara, a seaside resort town on Italy’s eastern coast.

“Right now, the most important thing is for me to learn the language,” Ye explains. “That’s my priority. If I learn to speak Italian well, I can be independent. It’s difficult to learn Italian if you spend your entire day sewing.”

Mass migration

Like most of the Chinese in Italy, Ye comes from Zhejiang Province, in eastern China. Her home, Qingtian County, is land-locked and mountainous, with little industry or opportunity.

The Chinese started migrating to Italy 30 years ago. Most found work in garment factories subcontracted by Italian clothing companies. The work was simple – sewing buttons onto sweaters, attaching zippers to jeans – and soon, they started opening their own small workshops.

In the last decade, the number of Chinese immigrants in Italy has more than tripled, to over 200,000. The Chinese now make up about 20 percent of the total immigrant population.

Many of those who arrived in Italy brought over family members, relatives and friends from China to work for them, and quickly gained a reputation for being flexible, fast and cheap.

Made in Italy, by Chinese hands

In China, garment factory bosses, called laoban, usually provide workers with room and board, but most don’t offer a monthly salary. Instead, workers are paid by the piece.

Close-up photo of a 'Made in Italy' label on clothing in Prato, Italy (Photo: Shitao Li)

Manufacturers may have Chinese workers, but they can advertise with ‘Made in Italy’

Jimmy Xu, who runs a workshop north of Falconara, explains why he thinks many workers prefer it this way. “The Chinese don’t like fixed salaries. They think, ‘even if I work fast, I still get paid the same.’ So workers, especially the fast ones, like to be paid by the piece. This way they can earn more,” Xu said.

Ye’s mother, Xue Fen, first came to Italy about six years ago. She got a job in a Chinese-run factory, working more than 15 hours every day and earning around 750 euros ($970) a month. It would take eight months of work in China to earn the same salary.

Fen agrees that laobans exploit workers, but she says the arrangement is also convenient for immigrants, especially those who have just arrived in Europe.

“If I work for an Italian boss, I have to pay rent, and I have to get my own groceries. That’s a hassle,” she said. “If I work for a Chinese boss, at least my housing and food is taken care of. This is how we do it in China.”

Italian sweatshops

Italian police say they have uncovered Chinese workshops that operate like sweatshops. Some businesses employ undocumented workers and have them work at all hours of the day.

This way of life allowed the Chinese to stay invisible for a long time, explains one police officer who does not want to be named.

Living quarters for Chinese factory workers are often cramped, like here in the industrial city of Prato.

“The Chinese are very clever and very well organized,” she told DW. “They deliberately choose to stay silent, so the newspapers don’t write about them and police ignore them.”

As many Chinese immigrants have achieved economic success in the last decade, resentment has grown, says the police officer, and has only been exasperated as Italy continues to struggle with high unemployment and debt.

Many Italians complain the Chinese are breaking employment rules – exploiting workers, undercutting the market and putting Italian factories out of business.

Valter Zanin, a professor of sociology at the University of Padua, has researched Chinese garment factories in Italy. He says that the industry relies on the cheap labor to stay competitive and that some employees are forced to work more than 18 hours a day.

Staying flexible

Ye Pei
Ye Pei plans to learn Italian and start her own business

But as the economic crisis in Europe continues to unfold, Italy’s fashion industry is in decline, and the Chinese workshops are also getting less work.

Seeking alternatives, many Chinese immigrants like Ye are getting into the hospitality business. In this new line of work, the Chinese are no longer invisible.

Daily interaction with Italians is helping immigrants like Ye to integrate better and learn more about the Italian way of life.

“I will work hard to learn Italian and to acquire the skills necessary for running a bar,” Ye said. “One day, once I’ve saved enough money, I plan on opening my own bar so my mother and father can have an early retirement.”

Deutsche Welle