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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds Chinese people have migrated to Italy in various ways which are typical of labour migration– through the regulated annual flow for labour migrants, joining family members who had already settled in the country, or as visitors or tourists who overstay their visas, or even using the services of migrant-smuggling networks. Taking advantage of connections provided through the transnational Chinese diaspora, they responded to opportunities for working in Italy’s manufacturing and service sector and as sellers of imported goods from China.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 seconds In particular, Chinese migrant workers were attracted by job and business opportunities available in medium-sized towns, like in the case of Prato where they arrived in the 1980s and early 1990s, attracted by jobs in the textile and clothing industry or by the opportunity to start their own microenterprises. Prato is a medium-sized city of approximately 200,000 people. 42,000 are foreigners. Of those, approximately 50% are Chinese citizens. It is, however, estimated that the Chinese community of Prato is closer to 25,000 people, including undocumented migrants. Chinese people living in Prato come mainly from Wenzhou in the Zhejiang province, to a lesser extent from Fujian province. Zhejiang is a province with a strong tradition of small, private entrepreneurship.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds Chinese migrant workers usually started with low-quality garment shops and sewing factories, selling both in Italy and China. They occupied a niche that was available as Italian industries in the province were making yarns and textiles for middle- and high-quality garments, both for internal market and exports. In Prato, the manufacturing industry was characterised by a high degree of specialisation with companies carrying out different activities from spinning to twisting, warping, weaving, dyeing, trimming, and finishing. Thus, the Chinese started carrying out intermediate work as subcontractors of Italian firms for the ready-to-wear fashions and knitwear sectors. Initially, they limited their activity to sewing as this required lower investments in terms of machinery and training staff compared to, for example, dyeing and knitting.

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 seconds Over the years, Chinese businesses have progressively expanded vertically to carry out all the activities linked to production and limiting cooperation with Italian firms, thus turning into a perceived threat by Italian entrepreneurs. Chinese businesses have formed ethnic enclaves by employing co-nationals, sending remittances back home, having limited contact with locals, and concentrating themselves along Via Pistoiese, today known as the Chinatown of Prato. From another point of view, Italian and Chinese business activities have been complimentary with Italians bringing in commercial relations and design and Chinese offering their hard-working attitude. Chinese businesses have shown flexibility and adaptability to the swings of the market, delivering at times of high pressure for large orders alternating with periods of inactivity.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 seconds While irregularity is not confined to Chinese firms, the Italian inhabitants of Prato have voiced concerns about their lack of compliance with labour and migration laws as well as the severe exploitation of Chinese co-nationals. Today, the relations between Chinese-owned and Italian-owned businesses are characterised by contrasted trends. They include cooperation and complementarity on one hand and competition as well as a race to the bottom in terms of labour standards on the other.

Chinese Entrepreneurship in Prato, Italy: Cooperation or Competition?

This video discusses the arrival of Chinese migrants and entrepreneurs in the Italian city of Prato where they work in the local textile industry

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Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)