Written by Antonella Ceccagno.

With much fanfare, the first results of an ongoing three-year project concerning the legalisation of productive activities are now being presented in Prato, the most famous Italian industrial district. The FACE 新面貌 project is a generously financed project managed by both regional and local institutions. Its aim is to fight illegal practices and address security issues in the workplace.

The project heralds a new approach and a new local policy towards immigrant entrepreneurship. It is characterised by local institutions as a new model of cooperative relations in a local milieu that favours trust and inter-ethnic cooperation, thus resonating with the much celebrated cohesive social milieu of the industrial district’s golden era.

Yet, the project only targets immigrant entrepreneurs; to be precise, the project is more narrowly targeted at Chinese firms. This is clearly apparent from the many booklets published in Italian and Chinese since the start of the project, and, more cogently, from the fact that the project’s central action includes inspection of all Chinese-run firms in the district.

Prato is not only the quintessential Italian industrial district, but also the centre of a fast fashion value chain that by now stretches from China and Turkey (as the sourcing areas) to most European countries (as the buyers of low-end fast-fashion made in Prato). Prato was the first Italian industrial district where the Chinese settled, and over time it has become the trend-setter for industrial relations involving Chinese migrants active in the Italian fashion industry. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, some 5,000 Chinese businesses are active in Prato – 75 percent of which are in manufacturing. With the arrival of the migrants and the creation of the international fast fashion centre, Prato, a city that has never been a global centre of power, has become a fully-fledged transnational city.

The project for workplace security and the new policy enacted through it is, for many reasons, striking. First, the project is the outcome of a tragedy. On December 2013, seven Chinese were killed in a fire that swept through the factory where they were sleeping. The tragedy stirred national outrage at the Chinese productive regime. Thus, a local policy addressing security measures – and in particular tackling the sleeping regime prevailing in Chinese fashion firms – stems from a tragedy and addresses the causes of this tragedy.

Second, the new policy enacted in Prato through the project is significantly different from the previous one, that for some seven years criminalised Chinese entrepreneurship. Third, it is a carefully planned, widely publicised project. It has gained the support of virtually all Chinese associations, including institutions that usually steer away from political issues, such as the Buddhist Association. Moreover, during the first months since the project’s implementation in September 2014, a number of meetings were organised to raise awareness among Chinese small entrepreneurs regarding the changing political climate and the new policy: there was no hope that their business would not be checked, given that plans had been made to inspect each and every Chinese activity. Therefore, Chinese entrepreneurs were advised to start implementing all necessary measures required to guarantee workplace security if they did not want their business to be closed down by the authorities.

But the reason that such a policy is so striking lies elsewhere. Among the measures that the project imposes on the local fashion firms is the elimination of the sleeping regime, whereby workers work and sleep in the workshop premises. Over-work, off-the-book activities, and flexibility are regular features of many Chinese firms in Italy, but alone they do not fully explain the growing role of the Chinese in the Italian fashion industry over the last twenty five years, their progressive replacement of natives as contractors, and the success of the low-end fast fashion in Prato.

What explains such a success is the ‘mobile regime’ adopted by the network of Chinese fashion contractors in the Italian fashion industry whereby 1) workers temporarily move from one contracting firm to another to complete urgent orders, and 2) workers move frantically along the national territory (and beyond) in search of better working conditions and opportunities. The mobile regime based on workers’ mobility heavily contributes to the competitiveness of the entire network of Chinese contractors in the fashion industry (even though the recent stop in the arrival of labour migrants from China risks undermining it).

In turn, the working regime of the Chinese contractors rests on some crucial pillars: 1) the sleeping regime, 2) the outsourcing of social reproduction, and 3) the ethnicisation of the workforce. The first of these pillars is now the target of the new policy in Prato: the elimination of dormitories in workshop premises is clearly listed among the workplace issues to be tackled within the project. So far, a lenient position at national level has favoured Chinese contractors’ illegal practices – including the sleeping regime – exactly because they support the competitiveness of the Italian fashion industry.

Prato, however, is the only locality in Italy where these circumstances are changing. By tackling one of the pillars of the dominant mobility regime, the policy enacted in Prato could seriously damage the architecture upon which the competitiveness of the clothing industry rests.

In Prato, the apparel industry is clearly divided along ethnic lines, with natives owning most of the textile industry and the Chinese dominating most of the clothing industry. In Prato, Chinese migrants have created – almost from scratch – a thriving clothing industry, where they have been able to jump en-masse to being owners of final goods firms. As a result – and in contrast to the rest of the country – in Prato, the Chinese migrants do not directly contribute to the wealth of the native entrepreneurs in the fashion industry. In fact, those Chinese who progressed to the role of manufacturers are able to directly take advantage of the competitive conditions offered by co-national suppliers and the growing opportunities for global upstream sourcing, thus reducing the advantages for natives.

In the last decade, the two local industries have been following patterns largely unrelated: while the Chinese fashion centre was thriving, the native-run textile industry was undergoing a washout.

The new policy’s clear-cut departure from previous permissive attitudes raises the question of why such a policy is enacted only in Prato, i.e. the only place in Italy where the final good fashion firms are mainly owned by the Chinese.

Whilst the consensus in Prato is that a policy tackling illegal practices in an effective way has been long overdue, it is unclear how the policy fits into the city’s strategies for the future. It is therefore crucial to understand which plans the city has devised for its future, and how these plans include the Chinese and the global fast fashion industry with its centre in Prato.

The new policy’s drive towards the elimination of the sleeping arrangements, in fact, could undermine the fast fashion centre in Prato in its very constitutive features. And yet, the long-term effects of the new policy on the viability and profitability of the Prato clothing industry have not been publicly discussed in Prato.

While short-term support for the policy has been secured, institutions and local stakeholders in Prato should be aware that the issues at stake in the long run in Prato are by no means local: they are issues that pertain to the global and the national collapse into the urban space.

Research has shown that global forces forge new ways of capital accumulation, and create new global labour regimes (such as the one adopted by the Chinese in Prato). Research also shows that cities are (differentially) involved in processes of capitalist expansion, disinvestment and devaluation, and that each city’s role in global processes changes over time. In the recent past, these processes evident in Prato, where capital disinvestment and devaluation in one local industry (textiles) have to some extent made room for investment and accumulation in the other local industry (clothing).

Without a clear awareness of the impact of global forces on the localities and a vision for alternative pathways of development for the local fashion industry, every new policy – including those that can be appreciated because of their focus on reducing illegal practices – risks to only further downscale a city already battered by the ongoing crisis of the local textile industry.

Antonella Ceccagno is Associate Professor at the University of Bologna, Italy. Her research focuses on international migration, transnationalism and cultural diversity. Image Credit: CC by magro_kk/Flickr