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Italian Fashion Industry Pushes Back on Underpayment Claims

The Italian fashion industry, reveling in Milan Fashion Week, has responded to a scathing New York Times report published last week highlighting the plight of Italy’s underpaid and undeclared home garment workers.

Titled “Inside Italy’s Shadow Economy,” The Times describes “a distressed labor market” where “thousands of low-paid home workers create luxury garments without contracts or insurance,” with some earning less than 2 euros per hour and working up to 18-hour days sewing luxury garments that retail 1,000-times that amount.

Home work in the garment industry is “particularly prevalent in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China, where millions of low-paid and predominantly female home workers are some of the most unprotected in the industry,” said The Times. “That similar conditions exist in Italy, however, and facilitate the production of some of the most expensive wardrobe items money can buy, may shock those who see the ‘Made in Italy’ label as a byword for sophisticated craftsmanship.”

Italy’s fashion industry however disagrees with the publication’s characterization, saying the issue of underpaid and undeclared home garment workers is limited and already being addressed.

“The problem of irregular employment exists in the world and luxury businesses are the most active in the fight against the phenomenon,” Carlo Capasa, president of Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI), the Italian chamber of fashion, told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news service. “Taking a few units that go underneath the radar seems a little pretentious.”

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In its official statement, Camera della Moda said, “The Italian supply chain has been under attack for a long time. CNMI and its members are committed to working toward making the Italian supply chain resilient, fair and humane on every front. It is a complex process and it takes time; there are no easy solutions, but we are working together through our established Working Group on Social Sustainability and have already achieved substantive gains. We continue to implement solutions using our evidence-base and by working collaboratively.”

Camera della Moda also takes issue with The Times’ reference to a 1973 statistic by an Italian economist who estimated Italy had one million contracted home garment workers at the time, and about the same number working without contracts.

“The only recent statistics cited are from Tania Toffanin, the author of ‘Fabbriche Invisibili’ (Invisible Factories) who estimated that ‘currently there are 2,000 to 4,000 irregular homeworkers in apparel production.’ Setting this in the context of a large industry, employing 620,000 people through 67,000 companies, shows us that the homeworkers featured are thankfully an anomaly,” CNMI said in its statement.

“The latest statistic in fact shows that in Italy the number of irregular workers has dropped by 16 percent from 2010 to 2015,” CNMI added. “Out of all sectors that have sought to tackle irregular labor, the luxury fashion sector in Italy has posted the best results.”

The Times does say “there is no official data on those operating with irregular contracts, and no one has attempted to quantify the group for decades,” but cites data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics estimating 3.7 million workers across all sectors worked without contracts in 2015. In 2017, according to The Times, Italy counted 7,216 home workers, 3,647 in the manufacturing sector, operating with regular contracts.

Roberto Manzoni, president of Italian fashion federation Fismo, told AFP it is consumers who are to blame for low wages. “It’s the tyranny of consumers’ choice that pushes businesses in the sector to find the least expensive solutions to remain competitive, notably with Asia which manufactures at a low cost.”