Seven Chinese workers die, three hurt, in blaze at Italian garment factory

Dead found in improvised dormitory in region seen as hub of unregistered immigrants in Italy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 5:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 4:15am

A deadly fire at a Chinese owned and operated clothing factory in Italy has prompted questions about conditions on the site and in a network of similar workshops in the area, many operating on the fringes of legality.

At least seven people died and three were injured when the factory in an industrial zone in the Italian town of Prato burned down on Sunday, killing workers trapped in an improvised dormitory built on-site.

The worst thing was hearing the cries of the people trapped inside

"This is a disgrace for all of us, because we have to recognise this reality for what it is: the biggest concentration of illegal employment in northern and central Italy," said Enrico Rossi, president of the region of Tuscany.

Local media said that 11 workers had been accommodated in a warren of small cardboard sleeping compartments above a warehouse in the Macrolotto industrial district of the town, known for its garment factories. Footage posted on the website of the local Il Tirreno newspaper showed fire crews battling the flames in a warehouse-like structure while smoke poured out of the building. Ambulances and police vehicles were at the scene.

"No one can say they are surprised at this because everyone has known for years that, in the area between Florence and Prato, hundreds if not thousands of people are living and working in conditions of near-slavery," said Roberto Pistonina, secretary general of the Florence and Prato section of the CISL trade union.

Prato, a town with one of the highest concentrations of Chinese immigrants in Italy, has at least 15,000 legally registered in a total population of under 200,000, with more than 4,000 Chinese-owned businesses, according to official data.

Thousands more Chinese immigrants are believed to be living in the city illegally, working for a network of wholesalers and workshops turning out cheap clothing for the export market as well as well-known retail chains.

The disaster underlined the unsafe conditions in which the workers are employed in many of the workshops although there was no immediate word on what may have started the blaze.

"The worst thing was hearing the cries of the people trapped inside," Leonardo Tuci, an off-duty police official who saw the fire and sounded the alarm.

"I did what I could, I dragged two people out, I'm only sorry I couldn't do more. I think the flames caught them in their sleep," he said.

A fire official quoted by the Corriere della Sera daily said there were clear violations of safety rules in the factory which burned down and evidence of unauthorised building work to put up the dormitories.

The mayor of Prato, Roberto Cenni, said there were "thousands of situations potentially as tragic as this one" in the industrial zone around the city.

He said he had been in contact with Interior Minister and deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano to combat the illegal "parallel district" which had grown up around the workshops.