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made in italy

Made In Italy: How Prato Became One of Fast Fashion’s Biggest Manufacturers

While exploring the historic center of Florence, you are as likely to bump into bustling crowds examining leather goods spilling out from stall-like shops, staring at glittering window displays, or filing in and out of the city’s many high end or bargain stores, as you are to encounter lines of visitors waiting to see Michelangelo’s marble David or any of the other treasures in the city’s famous museums and churches. The city is as well-known for its shopping as it is for its Renaissance art and architecture. Gucci, the luxury fashion brand founded in Florence, has a lavish boutique there, as do countless other renowned Italian and international brands, from Valentino to Moschino, Barbour, Polo by Ralph Lauren and Dolce and Gabbana. Many of these major brands also offer their goods in high-end malls just outside of Florence that tourists flock to by car or public transportation.

Shopping tours of Florence promise to immerse tourists in the illustrious history of Italian craftsmanship, conjuring visions of artisans weaving, designing, tanning, stitching and finishing beautiful high-quality products.

“The fashion system is traditionally recognized as one of the excellences of the Italian economy as well as one of the greatest carriers of ‘Made in Italy’ worldwide,” states Abiti Puliti, the Italian branch of the international Clean Clothes Campaign, in their 2022 report, “A Living Wage is Human Right. Based on Institute for Foreign Trade (IFT) data, the report asserts that in 2021 the textile-clothing-footwear component of Italy’s fashion industry contributed around €24 billion to the Italian trade balance, with a share of around 11% of Italy’s total export earnings.

 



Most of Italy’s fashion manufacturing takes place in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont in the north, Campania and Puglia to the south, and Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany in central Italy. Together, these sectors include more than 55,000 companies, which employ close to 500,000 thousand people in mostly small and medium-sized factories. Many of the industry’s first tier factories hire subcontractors, and to a lesser extent, homeworkers, to complete their supply chains, supply chains that are rooted in human rights abuses. Exploitation includes giving workers precarious, on-demand contracts, which are often administered through temporary agencies, and hiring “invisible workers who are part of the informal economy.” These abuses, combined with reduced protection of workers’ rights, safety, and bargaining power, make workers in fashion sector factories vulnerable to poverty and injuries both physical and emotional.

 

HOW FAST FASHION CAME TO TUSCANY

In the early 1990s, Italian fashion industry profits were shrinking. The country’s fashion sector manufacturers — like many fashion manufacturers situated solely in the global north — could no longer compete with the quicker turnarounds and cheaper prices offered by global south producers. “Made in Italy” by Italian artisans could not rake in enough revenue.

 

Group poses in front of a factory, holding a red banner reading "8x5"
Photographer: Simone Ridi, April 2022. People from the 8X5 Movement and ToccaUnoToccaTutti, an artist collective in support of workers, pose in front of a factory linked to “past and present workers’ struggles” in Macrolotto, a district in Prato next to its historic center, which is home to many garment industry factories.

 

“I started making shoes when I was twelve,” said Q, an Italian artisan from Tuscany who did not want her identity revealed for fear of losing her pension.

Q learned her skills in shoe making factories close to Florence until her retirement in 2017. She still lives near the factories where she worked, in a hilly countryside dotted with olive groves, small vineyards, and farms. We spoke at her dining table in the former stall that her husband, a farmer and handyman, rebuilt, brick by brick, into their now comfortable home.

Together, Italy’s fashion manufacturers include more than 55,000 companies, which employ close to 500,000 thousand people in mostly small and medium-sized factories

At work, Q practiced every step of the shoemaking process, being forced to forgo basic necessities until the products were finished. When working, Q had to wait for a factory lamplight to turn off before she could leave her workstation to go to the bathroom.

Throughout her career, she honed her skills as a shoemaker, eventually specializing in finishing women’s fashion shoes. “The shoe defined itself by its shape and how beautiful it was after polishing it with a brush,” said Q.

She also colored the shoes and even composed the paper in the shoe box, imagining what it would be like for the customer to unwrap their luxurious footwear. As Q, a tiny woman in her late sixties, talked about her job, her worn hands gracefully mimed the processes she had repeated day after day for nearly fifty years, a demonstration of what “Made in Italy” meant to her.

 

She would not talk about whether or not most of the factories where she worked were subcontractors. Instead, she focused on her last dozen years in the industry, when she finished luxury footwear exclusively for Valentino, a label that asks €600 to €2200 for each pair of ready-made shoes, in a factory that employed only a handful of workers, made finished products, and may have communicated directly with the brand. She did not question deadlines that compelled her to work long hours for several weeks at a time, even when she had a fever, or experienced off-season stretches that sometimes left her without a paycheck.

In 2018, 36 percent of Italy’s fashion factories were Chinese owned, working for their own fast fashion brands as well as Italian brands, and reviving profits for the “Made in Italy” fashion industry.

What bothered her was the arrival of fast fashion production in Tuscany’s garment, textile, and leather goods factories, a trend that changed production methods in her own factory five years before her retirement. Each person was assigned a small part of the process, “like making a pocket repeatedly, day and night.” She retired early, after surgery for work-related shoulder injuries.

Chinese entrepreneurs, who first came to Italy in the early 1990s, brought with them the accelerated pace and lower costs of fast fashion production lacking in Italian factories, as well as their own crews of Chinese workers, shepherded into the country by both legal and illegal means. In 2018, 36 percent of Italy’s fashion factories were Chinese owned, working for their own fast fashion brands as well as Italian brands, and reviving profits for the “Made in Italy” fashion industry. More than 17 percent of those companies were in Tuscany.

 

 

IMMIGRANT WORKERS TAKE OVER TUSCANY’s FASHION INDUSTRY

The small historic center of Prato, sixteen miles northeast of Florence and Tuscany’s second largest city, contains narrow, winding cobblestone streets, a twelfth-century cathedral with fifteenth-century additions and decorative artwork by some of Tuscany’s most famous Renaissance artists. Stores and restaurant window signs are written in Italian, Chinese and English.

Prato’s center is also home to a modern textile museum, housed in a former textile factory, that celebrates the city’s centuries old textile industry with exhibits of contemporary and historical fabric art, an extensive library of Prato-made fabrics, and displays that show the wool textile making processes that the city is known for: fulled or felted wool, first manufactured in twelfth century; nineteenth century mass-produced knitted wool fabric; recycled carded-wool textiles; and fabric made with new technologies.

By the early 1990s, the demand for Prato’s products dropped and Chinese entrepreneurs and workers moved in. Very quickly, they mastered the artisanal production chain that characterized “Made in Italy” and opened up factories of their own, employing mostly illegal immigrant workers from their country, renting facilities owned by Italians, and producing “pronto moda” (fast fashion) garments for their own brands. Soon, their factories manufactured goods for Italian brands, too.

According to Fair Wear’s 2020 Italy Risk Assessment Report, “by 2018, Prato’s Chinese population amounted to 11,500 legal residents plus about 25,000 people without legal permits, out of a total population of 191,000 people. About 3,700 Chinese factories operated in the garment sector, and 400 in the textile sector. Prato reportedly had the highest ratio of Chinese immigrants to locals and number of Chinese companies in all Italian cities.”

“I started making shoes when I was twelve,” said Q

In 2013, a Reuters article followed the story of Shen Jianhe, a 38-year old mother of four who ran an illegal subcontractor garment factory with 25 sewing machines in Prato. The factory’s sweatshop conditions included rolls of fabric strewn about the space, exposed electric cables, and plasterboard cubicles where workers, including Shen Jianhe herself, kept their belongings and slept. She, a legal Chinese immigrant, and the undocumented Chinese immigrant men and women who worked for her, sewed trousers for fast-fashion companies in Italy and across Europe for up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. When her sweatshop was shut down by the police, her sewing machines confiscated, her response was: “I need to find another job. I must feed my children.”

 

Protesters hold a banner reading "22 Opera I Licenziati, Liu Jo Vergogna" outside a Liu Jo store
Photographer: Giovanni Tarducci. Striking workers from Iron&Logistics factory taking place in front of a Liu Jo store in Florence. The Liu Jo brand was one of the factory’s clients.

 

The article highlighted the discipline and determination with which these immigrants, most of whom were from Wenzhou, a city in the Zhejiang Province, worked in Italian-owned garment and textile factories to “master the entire production chain” of “Made in Italy.” When they started their own companies, they “offered the speed, efficiency and high productivity that many Italian businesses lacked.” Their factories and subcontractors reaped big profits for Italian brands. At the same time, Prato officials looked the other way while 90 percent of Chinese factories were breaking the law in various ways: evading taxes; smuggling fabric from China; violating health and safety regulations; and hiring illegal immigrants to work without legitimate contracts, like the immigrant Chinese worker interviewed in the article, who sewed 70 shirts a day for 70 cents a shirt, sometimes earning as much as €1,500 per month.

The sweatshop working conditions described in the article are not that different from those in the American fashion industry at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly in New York City, where mostly immigrant entrepreneurs opened up garment sweatshops and factories and hired immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution as easily exploitable labor, ready to work long hours for low wages in crowded, poorly lit, unventilated firetraps. Each new wave of immigrants was folded into the lowest rungs of the industry’s supply chain, receiving little to no respect for their human rights. This practice continues today in the U.S. fashion industry.

“We had one week to learn to do a lot of things before we signed a contract to become fully employed,” – Z, garment worker

For at least a decade, Italy’s fashion factories have been adding more Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Sub-Saharan African immigrants to their workforce. According to Fairwear’s Risk Assessment Report, these immigrants “work long hours, without weekly rest, are paid the lowest wages and are often employed informally or through temporary contracts.” There are only a few available studies about working conditions for these immigrants, but all point to “exploitation of their vulnerabilities” by providing “less favorable working conditions compared to those offered to Chinese and Italian nationals.”

 

 

MEET TUSCANY’S IMMIGRANT FASHION WORKERS

“We had one week to learn to do a lot of things before we signed a contract to become fully employed,” Z told me on Zoom from his home outside of Florence. He sat by an open window, the oval curves of his young, smiling face illuminated by the sun. He did not want his identity revealed.

A few years before the pandemic, Z arrived in Florence after escaping bombings and other horrific violence in the African country where he was born and raised. His mother had said, “you should go, leave everything.” He ran away to save his life. In Florence, he began the immigration process and moved to the city’s “immigration house,” where he lived with other new immigrants, and found a job at a Chinese-owned leather factory near the city that made goods for Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. Most of the workers at his new job were Chinese and spoke only Chinese, but a handful of newly hired workers, including Z and a few men from Bangladesh, spoke English.

 

“Once the factory closed, she would lock the door. In the morning she came and opened it. A few of us told the boss that we needed to go home. She told us to stay inside. We slept there for about seven months.” – Z

 

He described work in the factory as terrible and grueling. “We worked from eight a.m. to eight p.m. and every Saturday, too. You worked twelve hours and got paid thirty euros. They told us we should work more time and they would increase our salaries,” which totaled €800 per month, a sum that barely paid for food and rent in the apartment he shared with other men. According to Z., the Chinese workers were all paid more than he and his colleagues.

In Prato, Chinese workers are paid twice as much as Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers. African workers are paid the least. This was confirmed by one of Italy’s major national unions, FILCTEM-CGIL, which also reported this phenomenon in factories making leather bags in Florence. Unfortunately, there are not enough studies with specific information about non-Chinese immigrant fashion sector workers to provide an overview of the magnitude of this phenomenon.

“We worked from eight a.m. to eight p.m. and every Saturday, too. You worked twelve hours and got paid thirty euros. They told us we should work more time and they would increase our salaries,” – Z

Poverty wages and long overtime hours are a persistent problem for workers in Italy’s fashion factories, especially immigrant workers, but so are safety and forced labor.

In 2013, the same year that the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, seven Chinese workers died at Teresa Moda, a factory in Prato inside a two-story building where eleven people worked and lived. A fire that probably started from a camping stove roared through the walls, causing part of the roof to collapse. Teresa Moda, a wholesale distributor that also prepared clothing for assembly lines, had bars on the windows and no emergency exits, according to officials.

 

Men walk a yard of pallets behind a warehouse
Art exhibit created by ToccaUnoToccaTutti during the Iron&Logistics factory strike in Prato, November 2022.

Eight years later, a twenty-two-year-old Italian worker in an Italian-owned textile factory near Prato was snagged by the gears in a warper, a textile weaving machine. The machine’s safety barriers were deactivated to speed up production. She was crushed to death. Another young worker in a textile factory near Prato, Sabri Jaballah, was cleaning a bale opener when his body was sucked into the machine then crushed, due to the absence of a safety system.

During the same year as these accidents, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights visited Italy, concerned about the thousands of work-related accidents occurring in Italy’s textile-clothing-footwear sector, particularly in Prato. During talks with Prato’s Labor Inspectorate, they found that the area’s eleven inspectors investigated 64 cases that year, and found “irregularities in all of them,” including undeclared work in 45% of the cases. The Inspectorate imposed sanctions, seized property and shut down businesses, but the owners of the companies restarted their businesses using different identities — a common practice.

The inspectors also found that “workers’ lack of trust in state institutions and their fear of reprisals by employers made the submission of complaints to the inspectorate more difficult.”

 

In 2013 seven Chinese workers died at Teresa Moda, a factory in Prato inside a two-story building where eleven people worked and lived.

“There is a chronic need for more inspectors,” says Deborah Lucchetti, director of Abiti Puliti. “The Labor Inspectorate is a public service in Italy. These kinds of public services are pillars for our social system, but there is always the risk that the government in Italy, especially this present government, would like to give owners total freedom to act without constraints, so institutions like the Labor Inspectorate can be an obstacle. This could be the reason that their potential is under-supported.”

Forced labor has also proven difficult to track. No cases involving Italian or Chinese suppliers in Tuscany have led to convictions, but a case in the southern region of Campania made headlines. On the outskirts of Naples, a port city dominated by the glittering Bay of Naples, where tourist cruise ships land on a daily basis, police arrested the Bangladeshi owner of a cloth-manufacturing factory who had crammed 200 workers into one room after “luring them from in their country of origin.” He had convinced the workers’ families that the “kids” would earn €800-1,000 per month in his factories, and receive residence permits if their parents could give him €10,000. In reality, the workers received €300 monthly for working 17 to 18 hours six days a week and at least half a day on Sunday. The factory owner never gave them residence permits, but retained their passports and locked them in the factory during working hours. This was the only instance of forced labor in Italy’s fashion industry for which the perpetrator was arrested and convicted.

“There is a chronic need for more inspectors,” says Deborah Lucchetti, director of Abiti Puliti. “The Labor Inspectorate is a public service in Italy.”

The NGO Committee Against Torture did report a risk of forced labor in Chinese factories in Prato and throughout Tuscany. Several organizations found excessive work hours in Chinese factories, up to twelve hours daily with no weekly rest, although workers were also allowed to use flexible hours when needed, which did not qualify as forced labor on excessive overtime grounds, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) forced labor standards. If overtime is not compensated as per the law, it is an abuse of working hours, but is not necessarily seen as forced labor. Chinese workers were also permitted to move from one workshop to another with limited control by the employer. “There are no studies on whether other immigrant workers, like Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Sub-Saharan Africans, are allowed the same flexibility and mobility in Chinese-owned factories. So, a potential risk of forced labor for this category of workers could not be ruled out.”

“It’s very difficult to do investigative research in Italy because there is a lot of fear,” says Lucchetti. “There are a lot of difficulties when attempting to reach out to workers, especially migrant workers…There is also the issue of class for the workers —who don’t want to speak to anybody. You need mediators, you need a lot of stratified ways to reach out to them. It’s quite complicated and involves a lot of resources, like time and money. In the last year, we found it more difficult to gather information in Italy about the conditions in the supply chains than in other countries. Here, the climate, the pressure, is very hard, and very scary.”

In researching this article, reports with statistics about Chinese and non-Chinese immigrant garment workers in Prato or other parts of Tuscany who may or may not belong to national unions have been nearly impossible to find because so many of these workers have been employed in the shadows of the illegal, undocumented subcontractor system. I also encountered blocks when attempting to interview workers in person or on Zoom. Some backed out saying they didn’t want to be fired from their jobs. Others did not want to be identified for fear of losing their pensions or fear of retaliation by former employers. One worker did not want to reveal anything about his life before arriving in Florence, or how he got to Italy.

“It’s very difficult to do investigative research in Italy because there is a lot of fear,” – Deborah Lucchetti

“What we [at Abiti Puliti] always say,” says Lucchetti, is that it’s not the problem of Chinese — or any one kind of ethnicity. This is a trap in the narrative. Public opinion is supposed to think that the problem is Chinese people, which is not true, of course. Prato has plenty of Chinese business people and workers. Those who have become employers exploit other people, like Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian, and Bangladeshi workers, just like Italian employers do. The problem is the dynamic behind this, the capitalist model that extracts labor and resources for a few to gain huge profits on the shoulders of the many.” This is the model that has always run Italy’s “Made in Italy” fashion industry supply chain. The only difference now is that the vast majority of shoulders in the lowest rung of the chain belong to immigrant workers, not workers from Italy.

 

 

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ABUSE OF ITALY’S FASHION WORKERS?

During the Covid pandemic lockdown in Italy, Z’s factory on the outskirts of Florence stayed busy making bags for Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. “The boss came and told us that we should all be working and sleeping inside the factory.” There was a toilet there, but no tub or shower. “I couldn’t take a bath there or do other things, only sleep and eat.” Some Chinese workers left, but Z and his Bangladeshi colleagues reluctantly agreed to sleep inside the factory, on the floor, on mattresses provided by the company.

“Once the factory closed, she would lock the door. In the morning she came and opened it. A few of us told the boss that we needed to go home. She told us to stay inside. We slept there for about seven months. She added an extra hour of work.”

The Covid pandemic opened a floodgate of garment worker abuse around the world, including the U.S. Many workers were laid off then rehired for starvation wages, temporary contracts, or worked in conditions that cost them their health, even their lives. Some factories that claimed to be closed during lockdowns, locked workers inside.

In the last year, we found it more difficult to gather information in Italy about the conditions in the supply chains than in other countries. Here, the climate, the pressure, is very hard, and very scary.” – Deborah Lucchetti

Z grew increasingly frustrated.  “I couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t see my son. Some of us went outside anyway then we would come back. When the boss found out, she was very angry. She wanted to cut the contract. I was really afraid.”

When Z told his boss he couldn’t stay, ahe gave him a paper to sign, which he took to a friend, who told him to call Mirko, the union representative in the Florence-Prato region from CISL, one of the three national trade union centers in Italy. Mirko helped Z hold the company accountable, advocating from himself and his fellow garment workers.

“I want a big change. We immigrants are working very hard and are not getting the same pay” – Z

“That’s how I was freed from them.” He has moved to a different community and a different profession where he works eight hours only on weekdays making €1,300 a month. To Mirko and the union, he says, “A big thank you. They are doing a great job solving our problems. They really helped me.”

To the leather industry, he says: “I want a big change. We immigrants are working very hard and are not getting the same pay as [Italian] citizens, [and Chinese workers]. We need you to at least try to empower us, mostly our payment at work. Hours, too, would help.”

Z made bags for Gucci at the leather factory where he worked. The brand has a flagship store in Florence, where, depending on the season, you might find tiered shelving showcasing one pair of reptile-skin slingback sandals and one reptile-skin handbag. Customers can lounge in plush turquoise chairs arranged on carpeted floors decorated with kilim and Persian rugs. Store windows and glass cases display the classic beige and ochre double G checkerboard background of Gucci-designed luggage, purses, wallets, and belts.

“Made in Italy” fashion brands take no responsibility for what happens in the Italian factories that make their products.

In 2023, Fashion United named Gucci, the most prominent “Made in Italy” brand, the fourth most valuable fashion brand in the world at 18.2 billion US dollars.

“Italy is somewhat a part of ‘Made in Italy,’ the realm of the luxury garments and luxury giants that made their profits and businesses in Italy,” says Deborah Lucchetti. “They all have headquarters in Italy, too. Italy is a fundamental hub for all their luxury brands.” The reality is that Gucci is now owned by Kering, a French company that also owns Bottega Veneta, another Italian luxury leather and garment brand first bought by Gucci. A different French company, LMVH, also owns a number of “Made in Italy” brands, including Fendi. LMVH, the most profitable clothing company in the world in 2023, made $181 billion in profits. Kering, ranked number five, garnered $76 billion.

“The boss came and told us that we should all be working and sleeping inside the factory.” There was a toilet there, but no tub or shower. “I couldn’t take a bath there or do other things, only sleep and eat.” – Z, garment worker

A Fair Trade and Clean Clothes Campaign report on fashion brands’ purchasing practices in the EU, which includes interviews with a number of manufacturers in Italy, as well as brand representatives, clearly illustrates that wildly profitable “Made in Italy” fashion brands take no responsibility for what happens in the Italian factories that make their products. Their focus lies elsewhere.

One Italian factory owner said, “the contracts proposed by brands never include a commitment on quantities to be produced or even a commitment on prices. The ‘contracts’ for the brands say that the supplier must respect quality and delivery times because if he doesn’t, penalties are triggered. Safeguard clauses ‘safeguarding the interests of the supplier’ are never put in place.”

 

group photo of striking workers
Photographer: Giovanni Tarducci. Photo of the workers who had been dismissed by the Iron&Logistics factory, taken during the Iron&Logistics strike in Prato.

 

 

The integration of luxury brands into the fast fashion business model has resulted in a constant rush to beat the competition and deliver orders more and more frequently with increasing product diversity and complexity.

A former fashion brand buyer said: “The main thing is that there is enough profit. How suppliers cope with the timing, [brands] couldn’t care less.”

No specific brand names or names of manufacturers in Italy appear in the report because the brand representatives and factory owners interviewed did not give permission to publish those names.

“The main thing is that there is enough profit. How suppliers cope with the timing, [brands] couldn’t care less.”

“Made in Italy” fashion brands that benefit from the fast fashion model of shorter and shorter production timetables for manufacturers, long payment timetables for themselves, and blind eyes and deaf ears to subcontractors operating in the shadow of the law so that part of their supply chain can still be “Made in Italy” at the expense of vulnerable immigrant garment workers, rivals the sweatshop business model practiced by early 20th century fashion brands in NYC. Similar to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist company, many recent “Made in U.S.A.” brands turn their heads away from wage and hour violations in their L.A. supplier factories, refusing to sign the International Accord for Health and Safety, which holds brand signatories accountable, through a legally binding agreement, for the safety and health of workers in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani factories that make their clothes.

 

 

FIGHTING BACK AGAINST THE FAST FASHION MODEL

Today, Italy’s garment-textile-leather industry is in a fight for workers’ human rights. Immigrant fashion sector workers and Italian activist groups are challenging the country’s abusive fashion business model on multiple levels, one of which is local.

In Prato, Naveed told me, “I worked at Top Line for about two years with only ten days off and no medical certificate.” He spoke from the yellow and white walled office of Si Cobas, an independent worker’s union.

When Naveed was a university student in Pakistan, he imagined becoming a fashion designer or stylist in a different country. In 2019, he went to Italy, hoping to realize his dream. The only fashion industry job he could find was at Top Line, an Italian owned ironing factory in Prato, where his brother worked. He took a job there entering data and ironing.

“They said they would pay €1200-1300.” They paid the Pakistani workers €4.50 per hour, and Nigerian workers €4 per hour for fourteen hours of work. “The contract was all appearances.”

I worked…for about two years with only ten days off and no medical certificate.” – Naveed

Naveed and his brother talked with the factory’s owner, who was Italian. “We respectfully said, ‘Please increase our wages; they are very low.'” The owner told them they could leave.

At the time, Si Cobas, the only union in Prato that regularly participates in classic labor rights protests like strikes and roadblocks, was conducting a strike less than a mile away as the 8 x 5 Movement. Naveed’s brother contacted Si Cobas and met with his fellow workers, those recent immigrants who were also paid less than the rest of the factory’s workforce. In the summer of 2021, members of the 8 x 5 Movement joined Naveed, his brother, and other Top Line workers on a strike in front of the factory against non-union work hours and wages and denial of their basic human rights.

A few weeks after the strike started, GD Srl, the company that contracted with Top Line, “withdrew its procurement contract.” According to Si Cobas, GD signed a new contract with Iron&Logistics, another company which had absorbed all the former Top Line personnel and customers — a common practice among Italy’s subcontractor factories to avoid financial and legal problems including problems with workers. Naveed and his colleagues began working for Iron&Logistics, ironing for lines like Roberto Cavalli, Moschino, Barbour, and Ralph Lauren, among others. At the same time, a trade union agreement was signed between GD and Iron&Logistics to guarantee proper employment contracts according to Italy’s national collective labor agreement standards (CCNL).

“They paid us according to the contract,” Naveed said, a permanent contract which was €1,350 per month for half the hours, weekends off, sick leave and paid vacation time. He smiled when he said, “We lost some hours but we were also tired.”

In 2022, Iron Logistics fired all the workers who had signed with the Si Cobas union, workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. “They canceled our job contract without any notice,” said Naveed in distress as he put his hands over his mouth. They also closed the business and moved to another city.

In the Spring 2023, the case against the company was still pending. Naveed had taken another low-paying job that he didn’t particularly like while he waited for the verdict. “I work for the betterment of my family. We send money to our families for education, their prosperity, a better style of life.”

That fall, the Prato labor court declared the dismissals illegitimate and ordered the workers reinstated and paid a year’s salary, a sum of up to €22,032. Naveed took his payment but decided not to return to his job.

 

A DUE DILIGENCE DIRECTIVE TO PROTECT THE EU’S GARMENT WORKERS

Abiti Puliti, the Italian branch of the international Clean Clothes Campaign, is in the forefront of the fight to protect Italy’s fashion sector workers’ rights, both nationally and internationally.

“The asymmetry of power in the textile and fashion industry global supply chain in Italy, as in every country where production takes place, is very problematic,” says Lucchetti. “What we have observed in the last decade is the labor union’s loss of power in favor of big financial powers outside of Italy.”

To tackle this problem, Abiti Puliti and other members of the Clean Clothes Campaign have been lobbying European Union decision makers for the last three years to “strengthen the  obligations of the upcoming Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive,” in order to ensure that businesses do not violate human rights, and if they do, that victims will be compensated. The directive aims “to foster sustainable and responsible corporate behavior and to anchor human rights and environmental considerations in companies’ operations and corporate governance. The new rules will ensure that businesses address adverse impacts of their actions, including in their value chains inside and outside Europe.”

“What we have observed in the last decade is the labor union’s loss of power in favor of big financial powers outside of Italy.”

Among the rights for workers in Italy’s fashion sector that that Directive aims to protect are the right to enjoy fair working conditions, including fair wages, safe and healthy workplaces, reasonable working hours, the right not to work if you are underage, and the right to join a trade union. If a big international company detects a violation within its supply chain, it must work together with the supplier to remedy the situation. If the company does not act upon the identified breach, it can be brought to court, ideally a court where the company is based, not where the supplier is based. The company must compensate for the damage caused in its supply chain.

In addition to directive due diligence, Clean Clothes Campaign is urging the European Union to approve at least two other regulations: to prohibit the importation, manufacture or sale in the EU of goods and products made with forced labor, and the creation of a legislative framework that regulates current business practices and trademark abuse by brands.

Abiti Puliti has been working with members also active in the Italian campaign Impresa2030, which calls upon the Italian legislature to actively support the EU process. Impresa2030 is promoted by many of the largest NGOs in Italy working on business and human rights. In addition to this campaign, Abiti Puliti works with its global and European Clean Clothes Campaign organizations to make sure fashion workers’ rights are represented.

 

Italy currently has the fourth largest group of working people at risk of living below the poverty line in the EU.

Abiti Puliti is also pushing for a living minimum wage in Italy. The European directive on adequate minimum wages, approved in 2022 despite its shortcomings and weaknesses, has the advantage of imposing on member countries a review of salary policies and an audit of workers’ actual access to adequate minimum wages, to be updated periodically.

Currently, Italy does not have a statutory minimum wage. In general, Italians have a very hard time juggling high living expenses with low paying jobs.

“We are among the worst countries in Europe in terms of workers’ purchasing power,” says Lucchetti. Italy currently has the fourth largest group of working people at risk of living below the poverty line in the EU. A living floor wage in Italy should be €2,000 net per month, or 2,151.95 U.S. dollars, and includes a standard work week of forty hours, according to calculations by Abiti Puliti, using methods initiated by Asia Floor Wage and developed by the European Production Focus Group. This wage amounts to about 13.49 U.S. dollars net per hour, which is well above the standard wages of most of Italy’s immigrant textile-fashion workers.

In Tuscany and northern Italy, the purchasing power of immigrant fashion sector workers is particularly low because food and rent cost more than they do in the rest of the country. In Prato, workers usually share rooms. Rent costs half their salary. They send as much money as possible back to their families abroad.

“The challenge,” says Theresa Haas, the Director of Public Strategies for Workers United, “is that due diligence mandates a process, not an outcome. I think the question that needs to be looked at is: what happens if a brand carries out due diligence, and workers’ rights are still violated? Is the brand off the hook? If the answer is yes, then that’s not going to be effective as a mechanism for enforcement.”

Due diligence is not as effective as a legally binding agreement, like the International Accord Health and Safety,  which “is an agreement between brands and retailers and labor unions, in which the brands agree to do certain things related to their supply chain, through which the union signatories can take them to court if they violate the agreement’s terms. The agreement would be enforceable in a court where the brand or retailer resides.”

Due diligence is also not as effective as joint and several liability. SB62, California’s Garment Worker Protection Act, states that brands and retailers can be held legally liable for wage and hour violations in their subcontract facilities in the state. The Fabric Act, a U.S. version of the California law, co-authored by Workers United, could hold brands and retailers legally liable throughout the U.S.

A small group of workers walking outside a building
The Iron&Logistics factory strike in Prato, in the presidio next to the factory, where the 8X5 Movement set up camp in support of the striking workers dismissed from the factory.

“On the other hand,” says Marissa Nunzio, director of the Garment Workers Center, the worker-led LA organization that spearheaded SB62 and is now a partner in the Fabric Act campaign, “the EU’s Sustainable Due Diligence Directive, SB62 and the Fabric Act are very much aligned in the sense that they’re trying to create some long-term changes in the garment industry, with an eye toward brand accountability, bringing brands to the table in different ways to be responsible for wages and working conditions in their supply chains. The alignment is there.”

The fashion industry of Prato echoes the fashion industry in N.Y.C. one hundred years ago and Los Angeles before SB62. What helped bring SB62 to L.A., California, and will possibly change the whole U.S. Fashion sector with the Fabric Act, is the presence of strong worker-led organizations like the Garment Workers Center (GWC).

“We spent a lot of time being grounded in what workers wanted and what they believed was important for them to campaign around,” says Marissa Nuncio. The GWC built a worker committee to lead the campaign. They made the decisions: what the final SB62 bill would look like; who, in the state legislature, would author it; who would speak for the bill in the media.

Granted, Italy and the U.S. are different countries. Immigrant fashion sector workers in Prato are just beginning to find ways to organize themselves. Prato’s branch of Si Cobas is a few years old, has only two full time staff members, and a group of volunteers, but their 8 x 5 Movement already brings a sense of community and trust, as well as more fearlessness, to the fashion sector workers who collaborate with them.

Abiti Puliti works with Si Cobas, too. “They totally understand what it means to work in a value chain where the factory in Prato is only one part of the bigger picture,” says Lucchetti.  Si Cobas does events with Abiti Puliti and has provided important information and connections to workers for Abiti Puliti and Clean Clothes Campaign reports. This lack of fear has sometimes led to clashes with armed people hired by factory owners during strikes, clashes that injured workers, union organizers and volunteers, while the local police watched, but did nothing to protect them.

Meanwhile, a political provisional agreement on the text of the Directive was approved by the EU Parliament and EU Council in mid-December, 2023. The Directive legally applies to large corporations with a minimum of 500 employees and a net worldwide turnover of €150 million, “It is also expected to have cascading effects on medium and smaller companies, which are supplying the large ones,” says Lucchetti. The agreement “clearly states that companies are responsible for the impacts they cause on their value chains and it contains useful provisions to hold them accountable. The text is far from perfect and has a number of loopholes, but it is a crucial starting point from a legislative point of view.”

On April 24, 2024, the European Parliament voted to approve the Corporate Sustainablity Due Diligence Directive. However, It remains to be seen whether or not the Italian implementation of the Directive will drive the big positive change for immigrant garment-textile-leather workers in Tuscany that Z cried out for during his interview. His voice broke when he pleaded, “we need you to at least try to empower us” by providing fair wages and work hours.

To hold billionaire international fashion brands and retailers accountable for the human rights of the workers in their Italian supply chains, additional drive on local levels by immigrant garment-textile-leather workers themselves — workers like Naveed and his brother in Prato — teaming up with Italian activists, unions and legal counselors to form centers from which workers can empower themselves,  is equally important. So might be support from international activists.

Imagine the positive power of a “Made in Italy” fashion sector focused on workers’ voices, needs, and well-being. The work to create this new and necessary model is a continuous process.

 

*Names were changed or omitted within this article to protect the identity of garment workers.

 

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