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Prato, a Tuscan town known since medieval times for its textiles, is a battleground for a fight over what "Made in Italy" really means, since the textile factories here are now mostly Chinese-owned, and the workers in them are Chinese immigrants, about half of whom are "clandestini" or illegally in Italy.
As in the U.S., during "the crisis" outsiders and immigrants rather than bankers and bosses are getting the blame, and its no different over here.
Yesterday, the local cops invited us on what they call here a "blitz" - a flash police action against one of the illegal sweatshops.
Here's what we saw: Down a ramp beneath an otherwise ordinary looking apartment building on a a quiet leafy street, a sweltering parking garage had been converted into an illegal factory/dormitory for about 50 people. The police stormed in at the breakfast hour, and a plate of egg was still sitting on a table in a makeshift kitchen, a four foot high hobbit cave with a plastic-sheeted ceiling carved out of a corner of the garage.
Children's toys and tiny sandals lay around everywhere amid heaps of thread spools, and plastic sacks of white cloth and lace - the raw materials of the ladies' blouses that the men and women who were being kicked out had been sewing by the thousands, to send to America and Europe for the fall.
The owner or operator was nowhere in sight, and the workers were drifting around, throwing their meager possessions into garbage bags and preparing to move out. Some of them talked a little bit to us. They were living and working in an airless cement and gypsum hole, having arrived from the agricultural provinces of China in the last five years, or months, seeking European success. They get paid about 500 euros a month, some of which they must pay back to whoever rents them their beds and employs them at the machines.
These men and women, in their twenties and thirties, were being rendered homeless but no one cried. Apparently they get raided like this regularly and carry their trash bags of belongings to a new cave, to sew some more clothes.
A woman drifted by in a beautiful, transparent white negligee, hugely pregnant, long black hair in a ponytail, stoic, oblivious to us and the cops. Her little shift looked expensive, looked like an Agent Provocateur piece, out of place in the cave except for the fact that these "slaves of luxury" as the Italians call them, actually make many of the designer items - Gucci, Prada, D & G - selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars on Fifth Avenue.
I will be writing more about all of this next month in Businessweek, a publication owned by our Mayor Bloomberg. Yes, observing human casualties of global capitalism at the behest of one of the world's most successful financiers is what we used to call irony, I think.