Monday, September 13, 2010

The Chinese in Prato

Sweatshops, corruption, secrecy, sordid living conditions, exploitation, organized crime. Not what we generally associate with Tuscany. And yet for almost two decades now the Chinese have made their presence felt in the large town of Prato, near Florence; incidentally, the home of famed director-actor Roberto Benigni. Here, they have specialized in the clothing industry.

So The New York Times finally got around to addressing this issue. Judging from the numerous comments, readers were surprised. I don't know why; practically all sectors of the Italian economy are heavily manned (and womanned, and possibly even childrenned) by immigrant labor, mostly illegal. Those elegant shoes and bags you wear may also be made by the Chinese, in tanneries located elsewhere in Tuscany, between Pisa and Florence. Your expensive Italian kitchen may be made by Moroccans near Milan. Almost half of Italian foodstuffs are not wholly Italian: you may pass up the Hunt's tomato sauce at your store in favor of sauce from Italy, made from Chinese tomatoes, picked by Africans in Southern Italy. There are also Africans picking apples in the Alpine region of Alto-Adige. The thriving, modern small-to-medium sized companies of Northeastern Italy rely heavily on foreign labor of many nationalities.

Even when you're in Italy, in a quaint locale (unlike Prato, which wasn't even quaint before the Chinese), the chef behind the scene at your restaurant, who prepared that exquisite risotto, may well be a Latin American. Even the pizzerias are full of Egyptian workers. And the elderly mamma, that Italian institution, is often cared for by a foreign woman. Same goes for the bambini and casa.

(in the photo, an impromptu sign saying "Welcome to Plato"-some r-challenged Chinese really do pronounce it that way- above the writing: "Made in Cina")