Bologna (Emilia Romagna), Italy

Better Business: Integrating the Chinese Business Community Into the Mainstream

November 19, 2008

Helping ethnic businesses conform to legal and regulatory practice results in better social and economic integration

For most of us, a “Made In Italy” label on our merino wool sweater or designer purse indicates both style and the reassurance that the goods were made under the stringent labor laws of the European Union (EU).

Not always.

In Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia Romagna region in Northern Italy, thousands of Italy’s Chinese immigrants are employed in Italy’s vibrant fashion industry working long hours in factories to produce some of Europe’s most famous clothing and leather goods. The textile industry remains a central part of the region’s economy and in recent years, foreign workers and investors have played an important role in supporting industry growth in an increasingly competitive market.

In the years between 2000 – 2005, there was an annual average increase of 20% in the population of Chinese nationals residing and working in the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. Today, Italy is home to the largest population of Chinese immigrants in Europe.

According to 2005 data from the Italian Chamber of Commerce, the region includes 1,100 Chinese owned craft workshops, representing 20% of the companies in the area. These companies employ approximately 9,000 Chinese migrant workers. Over the last 5 years, the emerging the Chinese Textile Community (CTC) has had an annual growth rate of 20% to support this booming business. Most of these newcomers to the area operate as sub-contractors for the major Italian firms and labels taking on traditional labour intensive piecework such as sewing. However, a growing number of sub-contractors have emerged in response to the rising demand for flexibility and high production costs of larger local producers.

The Chinese community in the region is close knit and isolated by language and cultural differences, showing poor levels of integration with the Italian community. The lack of social integration amongst these immigrants also makes them vulnerable to employment abuses, irregular business practices are also aggravated by the increasingly fragmented production process of the textile industry and low financial and technical entry barriers. These conditions are particularly true for the Chinese business community in the textiles industry where an estimated one in ten Chinese workers does not have a resident permit.

Efforts to bring the business practices of the Chinese bosses in line with the Italian labour laws hasn’t been easy and in the interim the perception that Chinese-owned businesses were not complying with Italian laws on working hours, health and safety conditions have led to allegations of unfair competition that have divided the communities. The isolation of the Chinese community has made the situation more difficult and attracted substantial negative press with indignant protesters calling for the Chinese to go home. All of these factors highlighted the need for action that would both aid integration and improve work conditions.

The Approach…
In 2000, the Consorzio Spinner a local consortium of research and economic development groups, was formed to connect with the Chinese community and encourage Chinese entrepreneurs to regularize their businesses by conforming to Italian labour standards. The intervention focused equally on reforming business practices inside the Chinese workshop and the problem of local hostility between the Italian community and Chinese workers. The long term goal of the Spinner intervention was to transform these immigrant workers into active members of a vibrant local economy and to create greater social cohesion.

The biggest difficulty that Spinner faced was gaining access to the workshops and creating a channel of communications with this insular group. To overcome linguistic and cultural barriers, Spinner trained and used Chinese intercultural mediators who went into the different firms to try and gain their trust. The mediators explained that the project was trying to help Chinese integrate into Italy and made it clear what duties but also what opportunities were available in Italy. The Chinese mediators also offered to help the businesses with their documents and Italian law.

Spinner also compiled a bilingual manual in Chinese and Italian that they distributed to as many Chinese businesses as possible. The first of its kind, this manual contains comprehensive guidelines for every aspect of running a business in Italy: from fiscal and contract laws, health and safety, to advice about banking and useful associations.

On site visits to factories, Spinner staff noticed that the factory workers listened to the radio as they worked. To capitalize on this opportunity, they created radio programs for Chinese in Chinese and broadcast on the local stations. Each program was about one theme which was important for working in Italy.

Spinner has set up a network of 87 public and private organizations to support the transition process of the Chinese work shops.

They have also contacted 354 Chinese entrepreneurs (32% in the area), visited 187 businesses (17% of potential beneficiaries), trained 185 Chinese entrepreneurs, delivered 38 consulting services around topics such as; Regularisation in the field of Labor legislation; Town planning; Credit recovery for subcontractors; and Fiscal obligation. In addition, they have trained 53 entrepreneurs on Safety and Security Law (90% finalized with certification)

Spinner was initially funded by the European Social Fund and by the Regione Emilia Romagna for a 30-month period from 2001 – 2003 but had such excellent results that funding was extended to 2006. In 2006, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT and the Dubai Municipality selected the Spinner Project as a “Best practice” initiative for the 2006 Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment (DIABP).

In addition to improved business practice, Spinner has also forged a bridge between the Italian and Chinese community, “Five years ago in Emilia Romagna, people felt afraid,” said Stefano Borsari, Spinner’s economist. said. “There wasn’t any contact between the Chinese community and local institutions or associations.”

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Making it Work for You:

  • Businesses that are well integrated into the larger community improve work standards for everyone. Find out what sort of support ethnic businesses in your community are receiving to help them integrate into the larger community and ask how you can support this work.
  • Find out whether your organization could take the lead in becoming a mediator between cultural and business communities.
  • Local government can directly support the integration of immigrants in the job market as employers, thus sending a signal to local industry. In addition to increasing the percentage of immigrants in local jobs, local government can model best practices to others by providing further intercultural education.