Francis is visiting the city of Prato in Tuscany today. Thousands of Chinese people work there in the textile industry – some under unworthy conditions. But that is about to change now. But a catastrophe had to happen first.
By Tilmann Kleinjung, ARD radio studio Rome
There are streets in this city that make you forget that you are in the middle of Tuscany. In Pratos Chinatown there is one Chinese restaurant after the other, plus grocery stores and small exchange offices through which the Chinese can send the money earned in Italy to the Far East.
"The city," says Prato’s Bishop Franco Agostinelli, "offers exactly the issues that Pope Francis is concerned with: work, reception and integration of strangers. Prato is a kind of laboratory for the society of the future – a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. These are our challenges. "
Rethinking after a fatal fire
Two years ago, Prato hit the headlines after a fire in a Chinese textile factory. Seven workers who stayed in the building died. The misfortune has made the grievances in the textile industry obvious, where Chinese migrant workers produce clothes for the European market and often sleep right next to the sewing machines. So you can save expensive rents and work even more.
Because the time pressure in the textile industry is enormous, says the small Chinese entrepreneur Wang Li Ping: "The customers come from France, Germany or Holland. They come with a large truck, place their order, drive on to Naples and when they have to come back the goods be ready. And if you are not quick, you will lose your job. "
30,000 Chinese work in Prato
"Pronto Moda" is the name of this industry, from which an estimated 30,000 Chinese live in Prato. You work as a middleman, tailor or, like Wang Li Ping, as a supplier. "I’m tired of the constant polemics about the Chinese in Prato: all illegal, all bad and so on," says Wan Li Ping. "For me, the Chinese, if you govern them well, are a future for Prato."
Simone Faggi, the deputy mayor of Prato, is responsible for government. And he says the city can actually benefit from the Chinese. About 1000 Italians already work in the "Pronto Moda" sector. Tax revenues are also higher in Prato than in other cities thanks to the Chinese companies.
"We don’t want to gloss over anything," says Faggi. "We still have bad working conditions. But you also have to take note of the fact that we have now started with controls and spot checks that will completely change the commercial structure in this city in about three years."
A lot has happened since the fire two years ago. The trade unions try to come into contact with workers and the citizens of Prato are increasingly taking care of these immigrants from the Far East, who are often the second generation to live in Prato. And Mayor Faggi sees more opportunities than risks in the strong Chinese community: "The Chinese citizens open a gate to the world for us. The city just has to seize this opportunity."