Made in Italy, but by the Chinese

The Italian fashion industry is facing a dilemma as thousands of Tuscan factories that produce the region's fabled leather goods are now staffed by low-cost Chinese labour

The 'Made in Italy' label conjures images of little old men and women in aprons and spectacles stooped over wooden tables, cutting leather and sewing by hand in workshops that dot the hills of Tuscany.

It certainly doesn't give you the impression of Chinese immigrants toiling long hours in ramshackle, poorly illuminated sheds and sleeping in small rooms behind thin plywood in the factories.

Cheap and fast: For the big-name clothing labels, Chinese-staffed workshops keep costs down by supplying inexpensive labour. This helps the fashion houses compete and, many argue, it's better than the alternative: moving production offshore

These days, the coveted 'Made in Italy' label on those fancy shoes, which can quadruple a price, may not mean what it used to.

Thousands of Tuscan factories that produce the region's fabled leather goods are now operated and staffed by Chinese workers. Though located in one of Italy's most picturesque and tourist-frequented regions, many of the factories are nothing more than sweatshops with deplorable conditions and virtually indentured labourers.

Chinese people have become such an integral cog in the high-fashion wheel that large Chinatowns have sprung up in Tuscany and Florence. Signs in Chinese, Italian and sometimes English advertise 'pronto moda' (ready-to-wear). At the main public hospital in Prato, the maternity ward on a recent morning was a cacophony of 40 squalling babies, 15 of them Chinese.

'Mi chiamo Zhong Ti,' one of the crib tags read, meaning 'My name is Zhong Ti.' In Prato, Tuscany's historic and industrious textile centre 16km north-west of Florence, Chinese who are legal residents make up about 12 per cent of the population (and probably close to 25 per cent when illegal Chinese immigrants are counted, police say).

For the big-name clothing labels, Chinese-staffed workshops keep costs down by supplying cheap and fast labour which produces purses, shoes and other products. It helps the fashion houses compete and, many argue, it's better than the alternative: moving production offshore.

But for legions of Italian men and women who try to maintain painstaking but costly old-style practices, the cheaper Chinese labour is deadly.

'It's a crazy competition. In fact, you can't compete,' said Andrea Calistri, whose third-generation family business has been making handbags for top designers from voluptuous leather and buttery suede for more than half a century.

In a way, this represents the dilemma facing Italy as a whole: How does a country compete in a hard-edged global economy while maintaining the standards that give a native craft its panache?

Three categories of problematic production plague the Italian fashion industry.

First, there are the counterfeit products, part of a multibillion-dollar fraud denounced the world over. Consumers have long been aware of fakes and knockoffs, made in god forsaken places, that are hawked on streets or out of car trunks. In 2007, Italian police conducted 250 raids on workshops in Tuscany and confiscated tonnes of cheap bags and shoes bearing fraudulent Prada, Fendi and Nike insignia.

Next, there is the grey area of shoes and bags partially assembled in China, India, Malaysia and other low-cost locales, and brought to Italy for a final buckle, heel or strap. These items can bear 'Made in Italy' labels.

Finally, there are the products made in Italy by Chinese immigrants. Now that's technically legal. But it crosses the line when the workers are in Italy without proper documents and labour conditions are especially nasty. Italian law governs safety in the workplace, the number of hours that can be worked and the minimum wage, but the law is often flouted.

Microchip implants

It is possible that a store may have expensive designer bags made by Chinese workers in Italy displayed next to the same bags made by Italian workers in Italy, Mr Calistri said. One cost 20 euros (S$42) to produce, the other 250 euros. The price tag, however, is the same, and is often many hundreds of dollars.

That's plain wrong, Mr Calistri said. 'If a customer pays 1,000 euros for a bag, he has a right to expect not only the best materials and best creation, but also a respected legal process.

'Made in Italy,' he said, 'means tradition, know-how and standards ... It means not only made in Italy, but made in the Italian way.'

Mr Calistri has formed a consortium of 65 companies, all small like his. They call themselves '100 per cent Italian'. In his workshop during a recent visit, women in crisp white lab coats were attaching gilded bows to pink satin clutches for Roberto Cavalli, while a computer-guided laser sliced thin sheets of soft leather for designs by Bulgari or Donna Karan.

Under bright fluorescent lighting, other women hand-stitched the suede inner pockets of another batch of designer bags.

The next step to distinguish their work, Mr Calistri said, is to implant microchips in handbags; with the chip, a consumer can check authenticity via a cellphone.

The top fashion labels remain largely aloof from this seedy side of the business. They say abuse is a marginal practice.

However, in making use of a chain of suppliers and subcontractors, they turn a blind eye to the problem, in the opinion of Mr Calistri and other craftspeople.

Today, an enormous portion of subcontractors are Chinese, according to the Italian police, who monitor their activities. From fewer than 100 in Tuscany in the 1990s, the number of Chinese factories, workshops and related businesses in Prato and Florence soared to 5,300 in 2007, said Police Captain Edoardo Marzocchi.

Police have shut down many workplaces after raids exposed poor living conditions, lack of residence permits for foreign nationals and failure to pay taxes.

In one raid last year, police discovered a clandestine factory when neighbours reported unexplained comings and goings of Chinese. Inside, police found living quarters with small cells for sleeping and a shrine for prayer.

No one spoke much Italian, except for one Chinese woman who seemed to be in charge. In broken Italian, she said that she couldn't produce papers for the workers because they were 'on tryout' and in the country temporarily.

Police say that explanation is usually a ruse. The Chinese workers 'self-exploit', said Ye Huiming, a 28-year-old immigrant who serves as informal liaison between the Chinese community and city officials in Prato.

'They spend a lot of money to come here and then they have to pay off their debts,' he said. 'They'll work 14 hours a day, they'll work at night, whatever it takes to accomplish that ... They don't come here to see the Michelangelos.'

Prejudice and misconceptions

The movement of Chinese into the Italian garment industry has transformed this part of the country. Now, it has to face the changes brought about by large-scale immigration.

Tuscany has the largest percentage of Chinese residents anywhere in Italy currently. Chinese who have immigrated legally are settled and have moved up in the world, Mr Ye said. There is the beginning of a second generation now - Chinese who speak Italian and follow the rules. A third of the Chinese here are under 21.

Mr Ye came to Italy 18 years ago as a 10-year-old with his mother, who worked long hours sewing in a factory where the family also lived. Today, he is a businessman with his own apartment, a Chinese wife whom he met in Prato and a baby.

Still, he said, the climate is souring because of prejudice and misconceptions, especially when Chinese are blamed for undermining the Italian economy by dumping cheap products into the market.

Driving through Chinese neighbourhoods and industrial parks in Prato, the presence is unmistakable. Inside warehouses visible behind Chinese billboards, seas of blouses and jackets hang from racks outside, shiny black BMWs and Chinese people on bicycles share the streets. Chinese bridal shops, real-estate agencies, florists, discos and restaurants have replaced Italian businesses in some areas.

The Chinese in Tuscany are becoming a permanent fixture, but the majority are still tied to the fashion industry. Their role, and any abuse of workers or labour codes in a sector that is so important to Italy, is generally a taboo topic.

Mr Calistri's group is unusual in talking about it. Another exception came in a television documentary this year aptly named Luxury Slaves, broadcast on RAI-3, an Italian state channel.

It exposed the exploitation of Chinese workers through the use of subcontractors and the questionable practices behind the 'Made in Italy' label. It sent shock waves through the top fashion houses, many of which refused comment.

A few said they thought the claims were exaggerated and they could not be expected to know the doings of all their suppliers. However, the documentary reported that Prada had ended its dealings with one sweatshop when the company was made aware of its work.

A Prada spokesman issued a statement that said the company 'controls directly each phase of the production process' at 14 factories it owns in Italy. Every supplier, the statement added, must comply with Prada's 'very strict quality standards' and sign a pledge of ethical conduct.

The spokesman declined to answer questions, saying the people at Prada were too busy. It's the season, after all. New York Fashion Week was in full swing, the fall collections filling the runways.   - 2008 February 27    LATWP


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