Fire exposes illegal Chinese factories in Italy
PRATO, Italy— The first thing the firefighters saw was the arm sticking out of the barred window on the second floor of the factory. Flames reached through the partially collapsed roof and a high column of smoke darkened the winter sky. This fire had been burning for some time.
The fire station is two minutes from the Teresa Moda garment factory, on the edge of the main industrial zone of Prato, a town outside Florence. The zone was developed for Italian textile manufacturers in the 1980s but now is predominantly Chinese.
The first squad arrived around 7 a.m. Priority No. 1 was the arm in the window. A firefighter raced up a ladder, cut through the bars and pulled out the slight, smoke-black body of a man. The operation took less than five minutes.
Each second mattered.
It was near dawn on a Sunday morning, but firefighters knew they would find more people inside. There were always people inside the Chinese factories.
The fire that destroyed the Teresa Moda factory on Dec. 1, 2013, was the deadliest in living memory in Prato. It exposed the true cost of cheap clothes, laying bare the consequences of years of failed law enforcement and the pursuit of profit over safety.
Prato is the epicenter of a thriving, illicit Chinese economy that has grown in the wake of Chinese immigration. More than 40,000 Chinese live in the city — some 15,000 of them illegally. Many migrants have replicated the habits of home and created a kind of outsourcing. Merchandise isn’t exported; China itself is.
Thousands of people have been smuggled into Italy, finding work at factories that ignore basic safety standards, while billions of euros are smuggled back to China, police investigations show. The savings on tax and labor costs have given businesses that don’t follow the law a crushing competitive advantage.
Many say illegal factories such as Teresa Moda are part of larger criminal networks in China and Italy. Police and prosecutors said they lack the tools to fully tackle the flow of migrants and money that fuel Prato’s black economy. The two countries do not cooperate closely in criminal investigations.
Fire chief Vincenzo Bennardo, a stocky, bald man whose phone ring mimics a siren, arrived after the body from the window was brought to the ground and was covered. He found two Chinese women outside the factory, crying, but untouched by smoke.
The younger one spoke some Italian and acted as translator. Prato has one of the highest concentrations of Chinese in Europe, but not a single Chinese firefighter.
The fire was eating through the building fast. Bennardo needed to know how many more people were inside and where to look for them.
“Are there other people?” he asked the women. “Do you know how many?”
They kept gesturing, agitated, at the factory, but said little. Bennardo tried a different tack. He asked if they knew the dead man. They said yes. Then they hedged. They told Bennardo they were neighbors and thought the man worked in the factory.
Maybe the women needed to see the dead man’s face. A paramedic pulled back the sheet. The man looked like he had been cooked.
“Who is this? Do you know him or not?” Bennardo said.
The women cried harder now. They wrote down the dead man’s name.
“Do you know exactly how many people were inside?” Bennardo pressed. How many people did his men need to find?
This time younger woman answered: “There’s a little boy.”
Made in Italy
Bennardo got into the fire business because he wanted to connect with people, out on the streets. Two years ago, he signed up for a free Mandarin course offered by the local government. If you want to understand people, Bennardo figured, you have to grasp how they think. But he didn’t get past six lessons. “‘Ni hao,’ I think that means, ‘Ciao,'” Bennardo said.
He grew up in Turin, an integrated, multiethnic city, unlike Prato. On one side of Prato’s old stone walls, people stroll through piazzas, past renowned frescoes and striated marble churches. On the other side, slot machines, massage parlors and Chinese graffiti offering jobs, shared rooms and paid female companionship punctuate the plain streets of Chinatown.
The Teresa Moda factory sat on a short street with scraggly trees, in a grid of blind corners and dead ends called Macrolotto 1.
Every Tuesday and Friday night, the dim streets of this industrial zone blaze with headlights as buyers load cheap, trendy clothes onto trucks. Many are headed for other towns in Italy, France or Germany, while 4 percent of Prato’s clothing exports, which totaled 551 million euros ($696 million) last year, finds its way to the United States, according to Italy’s National Institute for Statistics.
The factory churned out cheap “fast fashion” garments for sale across Europe. In an industry that thrives on speed, factories such as Teresa Moda have the advantage of being close to their main market. They also can trade on the cachet of the “Made in Italy” brand, though their clothes are made by Chinese workers in Chinese factories.
In the 1980s, Chinese immigrants began moving to Italy from the area around Wenzhou, a city famous for its entrepreneurs. Prato offered Chinese migrants ample subcontracting work, a steady stream of buyers and an existing industrial infrastructure. Many of those migrants have gone on to found businesses.
Despite the global financial crisis, the number of individually-owned Chinese businesses in Prato grew 35 percent from 2008 to 2013, while the number of European ones shrank, according to the Italian Chambers of Commerce.
Critics say that growth was possible because migrants brought a cultural disregard for regulations that do not maximize profit. Prato authorities have raided over 1,900 Chinese factories in the past 6 1/2 years, closing 909 for gross safety and labor violations, and seized 33,427 sewing machines that were not up to code.
Authorities spent months trying to prove that a woman named Lin You Lan was in charge of Teresa Moda and that the legal owner was a front. Chinese companies often open and close quickly to avoid tax and regulatory scrutiny, according to officials, and prosecutors said Teresa Moda was the fourth company that Lin and her sister had run out of the same building.
Lin’s defense lawyer, Gabriele Zanobini, contests both points. He said she was an employee, responsible for supplier relationships and administration, and that neither Lin nor her sister ever owned a business at the address.
To the Italian brothers who owned the factory building, Lin You Lan was “Monica.” To the workers, prosecutors said, she was “boss.” To Bennardo, she was the face of a problem he had not been able to solve.
He kept a fire safety booklet, translated into Chinese, in his office, part of his community outreach tools. He realized a booklet wouldn’t change a culture, but he wanted Prato’s Chinese to know that fire extinguishers could be thought of as a good investment. At the least, maybe they’d learn what number to dial when there was a fire. Bennardo only got a call when things went really wrong.
Ten minutes before the fire station got the call about the Teresa Moda fire, Lin You Lan’s cellphone rang. It was her sister, Lin Youli, who managed the daily operations of the factory with her husband, Hu Xiaoping. They lived at the factory with their 5-year-old son, Giorgio.
Bennardo could have used those 10 minutes.
The first call to the fire department came at 6:55 a.m. Over the next 22 minutes, the fire department would receive 27 more calls about the fire. Only one came from a Chinese person.
Teresa Moda’s workers had been up until nearly 2 a.m. sewing. Like many Chinese workers in Prato, they slept at the factory, in violation of Italian law, in a two-story row of bedrooms adjacent to a makeshift kitchen.
Chen Changzhong had been working there for seven months. According to court documents, he put in 13 hours to 17 hours a day for 2 euros to 3 euros an hour. It was a fraction of Italy’s legal minimum wage, but more than he was likely to earn back home. He and five co-workers were in Italy illegally. He said he paid for his 1,500-euro flight from Beijing himself.
It is not clear how poor Chinese migrants afford their plane tickets. Some pay smugglers thousands of euros to come to Italy, where they are exploited as low-cost labor to pay off their debt, according to Italy’s National Antimafia Directorate.
There was no fire alarm at the Teresa Moda factory. The heat finally startled Chen awake.
His room wasn’t far from the bathroom. He thought he could douse himself before running through the flames, but he never made it to the shower. He couldn’t breathe.
There are trade-offs in making shirts that wholesale for less than 5 euros. In Teresa Moda’s case, this meant forgoing not just a fire alarm, but also adequate fire extinguishers and emergency sprinklers, investigations would show. No one had bothered to bring the heavy front door up to code, either. Prosecutors said it was too hard to slide open.
There were no emergency lights to guide Chen out of his dark, 9-foot-wide room. There were no back or side exits because the factory abutted warehouses on three sides. An emergency exit in the rear led to the roof, but on the day of the fire more than 5.5 tons (5,000 kilos) of flammable fabric was stacked there, high as the mezzanine level bedrooms, according to prosecutors. Firefighters said the exit was blocked. A defense attorney would later say it wasn’t.
Chen figured he had one way out: The huge sliding door at the front. Between him and the door lay rolls of burning fabric, clothing racks, buttons, belts, cardboard boxes, and sewing machines.
His hand was on fire. He ran with all his might.
A bitter smell
Bennardo needed a number. His crews still had no idea how many people to look for. The two Chinese women outside called around on their mobile phones to see if anyone had escaped. But they weren’t saying much to Bennardo.
The chief, his deputy, and a variety of police officers took turns asking them: Who was in the factory? Who was missing? Who escaped?
Bennardo figured the women wanted to help, but didn’t want to identify workers living in Italy illegally unless they were dead.
Inside, four firefighters worked the floor, spraying the flames as they pressed forward. The masked firefighters could barely see. To their right was an 8.5-meter (28-foot) concrete wall. Adjacent to the wall and above it, bedrooms had been slapped up with wood and drywall for the factory workers. Two firefighters busted through with pickaxes and looked for survivors. They found beds, but no people.
The fabric burning around them released a toxic gas, chloric acid, which sears mucous membranes and attacks the lungs. They found the remains of a tricycle. Where was that little boy? One young firefighter thought he heard a child’s voice circling in the flames. He had never seen a dead kid before and didn’t want to now.
They found the second body on the factory floor, in a pile of ashes.
One or two factories catch fire every month in Prato; some are Chinese, some Italian. But in 20 years on the force, Giuseppe Scannadinari could not recall a fire that consumed so many, so completely.
Only the trunk, head and leg remained of the second man.
“We got very little of this one,” he said. “Not pretty.”
The two Chinese women watched the second body come out.
It was a tacit negotiation. With each body recovered, the hope of survival gave way to the certainty of death and the women surrendered more information.
After the third body emerged, Bennardo sensed a shift. The women, more cooperative now, drew a rectangle on a piece of paper to represent the factory and started writing down who slept where.
By midday, five hours after they began questioning the two Chinese women, firefighters finally had a map of the factory and a list of 11 people to look for.
At the back of the factory, not far from the emergency exit, firefighters found a black mass, carbonized but recognizably human. Whoever was there had been packed in burning material, from above and below, like an oven. It was impossible to tell how many people had been huddled together.
A forensics expert went in to search through the bones while the fire still was smoking. Counting pelvises, he concluded there were parts of three people. Two had probably been petite women. It would take more than 24 hours to determine whether the third was male or female.
Nearly four dozen people worked until noon the next day to put the fire out. Soft plumes of smoke rose from the ashes and bent metal of the factory. There was a bitter smell, like ammonia.
The little boy, Giorgio, survived. He and his parents, who managed the factory, had scrambled the short distance from their concrete-walled bedroom to the front door. Chen was the sole worker to escape.
Seven people had died.
The cause of death
Prosecutors said the deaths were preventable.
Authorities have tried for years to wipe out Prato’s shadow economy, but their efforts have been thwarted by unscrupulous entrepreneurs and formidable cultural barriers.
Gino Reolon, the provincial commander of Italy’s financial police, said Prato is like a laboratory for tracking Chinese organized crime.
“It’s like a virus, a new disease and we are now trying to figure out what it does,” he said.
Prato’s police have raided and closed hundreds of illegal Chinese factories. But factory owners rarely bother to fix safety and labor violations, said Flora Leoni, a municipal police captain. Instead, many open a new business, often in a relative’s name, she said.
Police have marched scores of immigrants with no papers back to headquarters, where they are photographed, fingerprinted and ordered to leave Italy within five days. Then they are free to go.
It’s been even easier for migrants to slip away since a 2011 directive that barred jailing people during deportation proceedings, Leoni said. Judicial officials now complain about a new law that makes it difficult to try people in absentia, slowing trials of hard-to-find Chinese defendants.
“There is not a lot of fear,” Leoni said. “They know quite well that our weapons are blunted.”
In the past, grave fire safety violations, long hours and illegal labor had meant good business. This time, though, they added up to homicide.
On March 20, nearly four months after the blaze, prosecutors charged five people with homicide: the “boss” Lin You Lan, the managers Lin Youli and Hu Xiaoping, and the Italian brothers who owned the factory building, Giacomo and Massimo Pellegrini.
The Lin family sent 900,000 yuan ($147,000) to each dead worker’s family in China. Defense lawyer Zanobini said the payments were made out of a sense of moral responsibility, not an attempt to derail the trial. He argued that Lin and her family were not guilty because the workplace violations did not cause the fire and the Italian building owners bore responsibility for the worst safety lapses.
The lawyer for the Pellegrini brothers, Alberto Rocca, said he is convinced of their innocence. He declined further comment because the trial is ongoing.
Prosecutors took the unusual step of holding Italians accountable, a significant move given that many have profited from Chinese abuses.
“If the responsibility also lies with the Italian citizen who knowingly permits these situations of illegality, then the next time the Italian citizen probably won’t let it happen,” said Tiziano Veltri, a lawyer for some of the victims’ families.
The language of loss
The funeral for the victims of the Teresa Moda fire took place on the third Saturday of June, after months of contention about how to cover the cost.
Volunteers handed out water to the crowd in the heat. The Italians, mostly, stayed to the left. Chen Changzhong listened from a shaded spot of grass to the right, with the rest of the town’s Chinese. A shiny scar snaked around his thumb and up his left arm, the burn a mark of survival.
Outrage at the deaths had reached Parliament, where politicians spoke of “slavery in the heart of Italy.” Prato’s mayor lobbied the prime minister for help. The region of Tuscany launched inspections of all 7,700 factories in Prato, and offered each victim’s family 20,000 euros to 25,000 euros.
The Chinese consulate in Florence rallied more than 400 local Chinese businesses to sign a voluntary pledge banning illegal bedrooms and makeshift kitchens. Two carabinieri carried in a heavy wreath from the Italian president. The mayor spoke. The Chinese consul general urged factory owners to make their workplaces safer. “All of us should reflect profoundly, learn this lesson of blood,” she said.
One woman followed her mother’s coffin toward the hearse, but her knees kept giving out. People tried to hold her up, but she shook her head back and forth, before sinking to the ground. Italian first-aid workers circled her to help.
Grief was something everyone could understand.
Bennardo missed the funeral. He had to go to Turin to see his ailing mother. From that distance, Prato seemed still and small, a town waiting for change that would take a generation to come. Monday morning, Prato’s schools swelled with Chinese, one foreigner for every three Italians. Bennardo went back to work, to wait for the next fire.
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