Bangladesh is not the only country to suffer deadly garment factory fires. A clothing factory in Prato, Italy was consumed by a blaze on December 1 that has killed at least seven people so far and injured three.
The fire surprised the sleeping workers, who were huddled in dormitory style living accommodations fashioned largely out of highly flammable cardboard. Densely populated housing of this kind, and other examples of austere living and working conditions for Chinese immigrants in Italy, are apparently all too common. A fire official, speaking to the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, said that there were several obvious safety violations at the factory, including the housing, the building of which was unauthorized.
Prato is a town of 200,000 residents located in the central Italian region of Tuscany. Almost all of its 15,000 legally registered Chinese immigrants work in garment factories. Although there are no reliable estimates of how many illegal immigrants live and work there, it is commonly believed to be considerably larger than the legal population. The factory that burned down is owned and operated by Chinese businessmen. Prato, well known as an industrial and manufacturing hub, is home to as many as 4,000 such Chinese-owned factories.
Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, said, “This is a disgrace for all of us, because we have to recognize this reality for what it is: the biggest concentration of illegal employment in northern and central Italy.”
Leonardo Tucci, a local police officer on the scene of the fire, said, “The worst thing was hearing the cries of the people trapped inside. 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.”
Nevertheless, while many expressed grief over the tragic accident, others noted that the deplorable working conditions are commonly known. Roberto Pistonia, secretary general of the Florence and Prato divisions of the CISL trade union, said, “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.”
Roberto Cenni, the mayor of Prato, concurred, adding that “thousands of situations potentially as tragic as this one” could be found in Italy.