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Since World War II, Chinese have migrated to Italy, and in more recent decades, migrated in larger waves. Italy hosts about 300,000 Chinese nationals, the largest diaspora community in the European Union. Many come to Prato, Italy’s textile capital near Florence, since there is a large established Chinese textile community. However, working conditions, financial constraints, and pressure from back home often force Chinese women into sex work and prostitution on the streets, in massage parlors, and in private apartments. Thought to be partially controlled by the Chinese mafia, the secretive and elusive community of Chinese sex workers tell a story of human exploitation and possible human rights abuses.
One woman said she arrived in Italy in 2007 and, like many of her compatriots, initially found work in small clothes and footwear businesses. “I used to work in small Chinese-run footwear enterprises, making around 1,000 euros ($1,123) a month,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Shifts were non-stop. I hardly slept. When orders arrived, I even worked up to 24 hours. I could not cope with that any longer. I wasn’t able to keep the pace any more.” In China, she was a stay-at-home mother for her two children, but her family needed money, so she left. “Labourers slept inside the [premises],” she continued, “Our Chinese boss provided food and lodging, I never left the factory during those years.”
While prostitution is legal in Italy, organized prostitution, or solicitation, whether indoor, on the street or controlled by third parties, is not. Brothels were also banned in 1958.
Davide Prosdocimi, a social worker with the Milan-based Somaschi, a religious foundation working with vulnerable individuals said, “There is an extremely high demand for prostitutes in Italy… Clients are extremely numerous. Women and transsexuals, mostly hailing from Albania, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Nigeria, Peru and Romania are easy to find online, at massage parlours and on the streets.”
For the past 25 years, China has undergone radical transformation and unprecedented economic growth, said Daniele Brigadoi Cologna, a Chinese language lecturer and researcher at the Insubria University of Como. People are extremely worried about being left behind in the “race” to improve social status, he said. This makes it very hard to offer alternatives to these women, whose only goal is to make money for their families and guarantee their own survival, social workers say. “In this [struggle], people may feel that there are no clear boundaries and that everything is allowed,” Cologna states. “This pushes people to conceive their own commercialization 360-degrees, embracing all aspects of life, starting with work.”
Chinese women do not come to Italy with the goal of entering into sex work. Many come to Italy in order to secure a better future for themselves and their family. In China, people of rural origin are reportedly denied basic rights and benefits, and a household registration system called hukou determines citizens’ access to education and social welfare. Leaving the village often times is the only way for such people to secure a future.
In the 1980s, Chinese presence in the local garment sector grew, and workers across China came to Italy to produce clothes, shoes, and handbags carrying the prized “Made in Italy” label. Some migrants come with tourist visas and stay on. Others paid smugglers huge fees, which they then had to work off, a form of indentured servitude that was enforced by the threat of violence. The long hours that the Chinese worked astonished many Italians, who were used to several weeks of paid vacation a year and five months of maternity leave. Today, thousands work in small companies across Padua and other areas. Around 50,000 Chinese are employed in Prato alone, Italy’s textile capital near Florence.
Workers work grueling hours, forced to live in factories to maximize productivity. When large orders arrive, they often work up to 16 hours a day. Workers are paid per piece, sometimes earning between 1,500 and 2,000 euros ($1,685 to $2,246) a month. But earnings are not proportional to people’s efforts.
Several businesses have been accused of using undocumented migrant labour, ignoring safety rules and evading taxes. The under-the-table cash economy of Prato’s Chinese factories has facilitated tax evasion. Last year, as the result of an investigation by the Italian finance ministry into five billion dollars’ worth of questionable money transfers, the Bank of China, whose Milan branch had reportedly been used for half of them, paid a settlement of more than twenty million dollars. Many of the transfers, the authorities said, represented undeclared income from Chinese-run businesses, or money generated by the counterfeiting of Italian fashion goods.
Italy ordered the arrest of 33 people in 2018 on suspicion of running a Chinese mafia group involved in gambling, prostitution, and drugs, all of which dominated the transport of Chinese goods across Europe.
Eventually, when worker productivity decreases due to physical limits and sight problems, the workers lose their jobs. Men usually return to China, but some women decide to stay, taking jobs as babysitters or maids for Chinese compatriots, for very low salaries. Others end up being exploited and enter prostitution. “Exploitation passes very fast, and in a fluid way, from work exploitation to sexual exploitation,” Benetello, an Italian-Chinese cultural mediator, said.
This once again highlights the vulnerability of female immigrants throughout the world. These Chinese sex workers are especially at risk, as these women often do not speak Italian and do not know what agencies or resources to contact for help. In light of many workers’ young age, social workers say human trafficking could be involved. Still, they say the hurdles that exist to accessing Chinese-only circles has made it impossible to connect with the victims directly.