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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 17:27 GMT
Crisis in Tuscany's Chinatown
By Tamsin Smith
BBC's Rome reporter

Racks of brightly coloured shirts and dresses flutter outside rows of warehouses. Inside, people toil at sewing machines day and night producing large quantities of clothing that cost little.

Chinese and Italian signs
Prato is home to Italy's largest Chinese community
Or at least that's how it used to be. Today many of these family run garment factories in Prato, near Florence, are closing.

The town is home to Italy's largest Chinese community of over 16,000.

This region of Tuscany is famous for its textile industry, and the Chinese community have put down their entrepreneurial roots here.

They established their own industrial zone of ready-to-wear garment manufacturing, attracting thousands of immigrant workers.

New Chinese immigrants can't come here - there's no work any more. The crisis means no-one is spending
Zhen Key
Chinese supermarket owner
"We're in a crisis, a big crisis," says Zhen Key. He now runs a local Chinese supermarket, but he used to be a garment manufacturer, before the orders from Italian textile firms dried up.

"New Chinese immigrants can't come here - there's no work any more," he says. "Even now in this shop my profits are down. The crisis means no-one is spending".

Wherever you go in Prato's Chinese community, in the restaurants, the dry cleaners, they talk about 'the crisis'.

Lawyer Francesca Meuchi
Lawyer Francesca Meuchi fears the crisis will increase criminal activity

A recent downturn in the Italian textile industry has dramatically cut production in this manufacturing sector, leading to job losses.

Import threat

Some Chinese businesses have tried to diversify, importing ready-to-wear goods directly from China.

But Chinese imports are now seen by the Italian government as a threat to the Italian economy, and containers often remain blocked at Italian ports.

"It's a disaster. People's debts are rising," says another man.

"Sixty per cent of the Chinese here make garments. My brother has huge problems in his firm. All the workers are leaving."

Professor Antonella Ceccagno is director of Prato's immigration centre where staff are still trying to get to grips with the effects of the economic turn-down.

"This is a very new situation - just two months ago when we talked about the situation of the Chinese in Italy there was no crisis," she says. "It arrived all of a sudden".

Move on

She says that many Chinese immigrants in Prato may now have to look outside Italy to find work.

They have to find work. For us Chinese it's very important, it doesn't matter what job, what hours, it just has to be work.
Xiaole, internet cafe owner

"The Chinese migrants perceive Europe as a chessboard where they move freely. They go from country to country looking for opportunities," she says.

"The Chinese in Prato, who are mostly from the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, have strong networks of relationships all over Europe, and so they know in these countries they have points of reference."

No-one in Prato's Chinese community will comment on how workers, most of whom are illegal, actually move to other countries.

Professor Ceccagno says the network of relationships which helps Chinese move easily around Europe doesn't necessarily mean they are trafficked against their will.

"The problem is that the self-exploiting culture of Chinese workers here pushes them to find highly exploiting jobs, especially if there is no work".

Black market

Prato's leading criminal lawyer, Francesca Meuchi, disagrees.

"Most of the Chinese immigrants are clandestine which means they can only travel from one black market to another through illegal, and by this I mean criminal channels," she says.

"But it's hard to see because the movements and the economy of the Chinese are hidden".

She thinks that the new economic crisis in Prato will increase criminal activity.

"Things are already changing here," she says. "There's less job stability and I'm seeing more cases of young Chinese people involved in drug dealing and more people being taken abroad to exploitative jobs."

New arrivals

At an internet cafe in Prato's Chinatown, young Chinese people are listening to music, surfing the web and playing computer games.

They are too nervous to talk to me. But Xiaole the cafe owner tells me she sees many new arrivals from China looking for work.

Italy factory
Rag trade workers face quiet times
"They'll leave here soon. The crisis means there can't work here. I know people who go to other Italian cities or to France, Germany or Spain," she says.

"They have to find work. For us Chinese it's very important, it doesn't matter what job, what hours, it just has to be work".

Italy's largest Chinese population could face an uncertain future, if this economic crisis forces workers out of Prato in search of low paid work elsewhere in Europe.

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