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Pope urges fight against exploitation in Italy’s ‘Chinatown’

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis on Tuesday urged Italy’s textile city of Prato, home to a large Chinese community with widespread illegal sweatshops, to fight exploitation, illegality and corruption.

Thousands of people lined the streets of the Tuscan city to hear the Argentine pontiff, who arrived by helicopter for a lightning visit, addressing the crowds from the cathedral’s famous balcony, designed by Renaissance sculptor Donatello.

Everyone, regardless of nationality, deserves “respect, inclusion and a decent job,” Francis said, applauding the locals for their “constant efforts to integrate everyone” into their community.

However, “the life of every community requires we fight to the last the cancer of corruption… and poison of illegality”.

The pontiff paid tribute to the victims of a fire which became a symbol of the city’s dangerous sweatshops, describing it as “a tragedy born of exploitation and inhumane living conditions”.

The deadly blaze in a garment factory at the end of 2013 killed seven people who had been living and sleeping in close quarters inside the workshop and who were trapped inside by bars on the windows.

Francis urged locals not to “resign yourself in front of apparently difficult situations of coexistence” with Chinese garment workers in the city, where numerous Italian firms have been forced to close up shop, unable to compete.

The 78-year-old pontiff, who was heading off to address Italian bishops in Florence, toured the cathedral square in his popemobile as pilgrims waving the Vatican’s yellow and white flag cheered in the sunshine.

– ‘A model city’ –
Prato is officially home to over 16,000 Chinese nationals out of a total of 191,000 inhabitants. But local sources say the real figure could be as high as 50,000 — close to a quarter of the population.

In the suburb around Via Pistoiese, shop signs are written in both Mandarin and Italian. Some among even the third-generation residents, born and raised here, do not know the language of Dante.

They have revitalised a flagging textile industry, though Italians quibble with their method: Chinese workers churn out clothes made of cheap imported cloth and the companies can legally sell them with the “Made in Italy” label.

“Each week we try and visit 20 Chinese businesses, we explain what the rules are in terms of security, environment and bookkeeping… we help them to understand and abide by the law,” Wang Li Ping, head of CNA World China, told AFP.

Luca Giusti, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Prato, said the Chinese workers represent “unfair competition because they don’t respect the rules,” and encourage a dangerous drop in standards in labour conditions.

He admits, however, that the community is worth “between 9.0 and 10 percent” of the city’s Gross Domestic Product.

Prato’s young mayor Matteo Biffoni knows he has an unenviable task in trying to crack down on the illegal sweatshops, which more often than not spring up again elsewhere mere weeks after they are closed by police.

But he insisted change is happening thanks to the efforts made by the younger generations and says his aim is for Prato to become “a model city on a national level” in terms of integration.



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