The city of Prato, located around 20 km northwest of Florence, has 194,000 inhabitants, a good quarter of whom are foreigners. Since the Renaissance, it has a long history in the textile industry. To this day, the XIV century archives of the long-distance trader and wool producer Francesco Dantini are frequently cited by international researchers interested in the history of the city. In the Post-war period, Prato was the “rag center of Europe” and attracted workers from the south of Italy. In the 1980s, migrants from the small town of Wenzhou in the Zhejiang region in China came to the flourishing industrial metropolis - initially as guest workers. Ensuing years saw them setting up their own companies. Over time, Prato became the largest textile production site in Europe and it had the largest Chinatown in Europe with, officially, 23,000 Chinese residents and approximately 124 different ethnic groups living there. 42,000 workers were employed in Prato’s export economy in 2021, profits of which increased by 44% in the textile industry, and 94% in the clothing industry in the same year. Up to 1.5 million euros are transferred to China from the city every day.
To sustain this exponential growth, labor in the almost 8,000 textile and fashion supply companies is largely based on illegal moonlighting and benefits from the almost rightless status of migrant workers. Unregulated working hours of up to 12 hours per 7 days per week are not exceptional in textile companies. Migrant workers are often recruited directly in the reception centers for asylum applications. For some of these workers, the situation is extremely precarious. In the best cases losing a job only means lost income, in the worst cases, workers lose their residence permits.
In his book Education as a Practice of Freedom: Prato and the School of Fight 8x5 (2023) Marco Ravasio, a communication consultant from Prato, documented the shifts within the textile sector amid new waves of exploitation of migrants. Ravasio considers the failure of the reception systems for migrants, the endless working hours, and the exclusion from the regular housing market, as the pillars on which their exploitation is based, and which separates the lives of migrant workers from those of the locals. A separation that, over time, has created a parallel society dominated by illegal practices. The national anti-mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho called Prato “the European capital of the Chinese mafia” and the journalist Roberto Saviano, famous for documenting the doings of the Camorra mafia, has written extensively about the structures of organized crime in the Prato textile sector. Links between the 'ndrangheta and the Chinese mafia repeatedly have led to legal proceedings concerning money laundering and the illegal disposal of toxic waste. Contrary to the official (false) narrative that sees the excellent Made in Italy in Prato and that based on illegal migrant labor, as comprising two separate districts, thousands of small companies in Prato are surviving via disguised procurements by the big fashion brands.
In 2017 the Italy-wide grassroots autonomous trade union SI Cobas (Sindacato Intercategoriale Cobas) opened its first office in Prato/Firenze. Their presence has encouraged textile workers to organize strikes and mobilize against exploitation. Protests by migrant workers began in the spring/summer of 2018 at the gates of three factories in Prato: the Tintoria DL dye works, the Tintoria Fada dye works, and Gruccia Creations, which produces plastic clothing hangers. Workers were protesting against 12-hour working days, 7 working days per week, hourly wages of 4 euros, and working conditions without regular contracts. In the summer of 2019, the author Simona Baldanzi summarized the industrial action in the article “A uccidere è l’organizzazione del lavoro” on Jacobin Italia where she recalled the exclamation of a striker: “This is not a war between Pakistanis and Chinese but between workers and exploiters. Now we are only Pakistanis, but slowly, slowly all workers will take to the streets!”
At the beginning of 2021, the Texprint company summarily dismissed Pakistani, Senegalese, and Chinese workers after they denounced their working conditions, to which workers reacted with a nine-month strike. The strikers held out in tents outside the factory gates for 230 days and nights: Their banner reads: "8x5 ( eight hrs per 5 days per week) - No more slaves, we want a better life". They started a hunger strike in front of the town hall which was violently ended after two days, the workers were evicted and four arrests were made for "resisting public officials". On this occasion, several local artists got into conversation with the striking workers and the SI Cobas coordinators. This was the beginning of a new alliance, based not on “external solidarity” but on how to contribute to the workers’ struggle and support and amplify their voices through art practices. Over three years the community of struggles of migrant workers and unionists included a steadily growing collective of artists and curators who gave themselves the name of ToccaUnoToccaTutti.
After the experience of the hunger strike, 15 different red stickers suddenly appeared all over the city of Prato. They depicted a heart, the text ToccaUnoToccaTutti, a date, and a QR code that directed visitors to short documentary videos depicting the actions and violent confrontations against the Texprint workers in 2021. The stickers were produced by Toccaunotoccatutti and then distributed en masse among workers and strikers or sent by cell phone. The artists’ idea was to bring visibility of police violence, bring criticism of working conditions in the Prato textile industry from the periphery to the center of discussion, and agitate urban society. The films can still be seen today on their website and, together with the material and actions planned for the following months, the footage will one day become part of an archive of migrant workers' struggles in Prato, possibly to be housed in the non-profit Istituto Ernesto di Martino, which is home to the largest private European collection of audio documents of proletarian and popular culture.
In April 2022: the artist collective ToccaUnoToccaTutti invited Oppy De Bernardo, an Italian-Swiss artist colleague, to collaborate on a nomadic installation to express solidarity with the mayor of Riace, Mimmo Lucano. Lucano had revitalized the Calabrian village of Riace by welcoming and settling migrants there, and, due to his leftist policies, he was expelled from the town by the right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (Lega), who endorsed anti-migration policies. Oppy De Bernardo responded to the invitation by installing a light bulb sign on a truck that read: "La legge è uguale per tutti" (The law is the same for everyone) which departed from Riace to various other places and stopped in front of those factories in Prato where strikes had recently happened. Workers, trade unionists, and residents gathered next to the truck to talk about labor struggles against exploitation. Six months later, in November 2022, the artist collective - which had now grown to a group of around 20 people - met in front of the Iron&Logistics company in Prato and organized a one-day, unannounced exhibition outside the strike site in the area cleared by the police because it was not a “public” space. With the artistic action, it was occupied again, and it became a place for intensive discussions between workers and artists.
The alliance of migrant workers, trade unionists, and artists may seem a highly delicate balancing act: how to create awareness of the precarity of migrant workers and support their voices without tokenizing the struggle or “adorning” the position of the artist as socially engaged but untethered to the community’s wider struggles? In Prato the strategy of all participants has simply been to struggle together, not merely talking about the struggle, but being part of it. In this spirit, all interventions were coordinated in a dialogue between workers, unionists, and artists. and focus was placed on the relationship between workers and commodities, the concept of the inhuman, the language of justice, and the experience of different modes of time and different narratives. These joint discussions gave birth, in October 2023, to a one-day exhibition in various locations in Prato entitled Arte e lotte operaie (art and workers' struggles). Workers, trade unionists, and artists jointly reconstructed the activity of the struggles, the legal procedures, disputes, complaints, and “victories” from 2018 forward. They conceived the exhibition as a tour through the city to the periphery, from the studio spaces to the union headquarters. Installations, comic drawings, video texts, and a graphic timeline of workers’ struggles since 2018 are featured. ToccaUnoToccaTutti defined the exhibition as not only an expression of solidarity in support of the workers’ struggle but also as a way of working towards the construction of an artistic and economic model based on sharing and not on competition, on solidarity, not indifference.
Currently, SI Cobas and ToccaUnoToccaTutti are working on a film to recount the history of the five years of battles, victories, and conquests, but also the trials, injustices, and the waiting, and militant togetherness between workers. The hope is to continue to disseminate the story of social transformation in other zones of worker conflicts and to encourage collective, self-organized fights for better working conditions. In Prato, meanwhile, the fight against the omnipotence of the big brands, their system of exploitations and illegal activities will continue in an ongoing community of struggles - and victories.
Artists in the ToccaUnoToccaTutti collective: Adriana Dantas Cabral, Erika Di Michele, Raffaele Di Vaia, Franco Menicagli, Dario Nincheri e Paolo Gallina, Zheng Ningyuan, David Behar Perahia, Mosè Risaliti, Tina Salvadori Paz, Guido Segni, Giovanni Tarducci, Tatiana Villani, Rachel Morellet.
Other participants: Vittoria Colìni, Silvia Giagnoni, Elisa Maurizi, Marco Ravasio, Stefania Rinaldi, Francesca Ciuffi, Manuel Perna, Luca Sguanci, Luca Toscano.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover, fig. 1, fig. 2: Courtesy and credits toccaunotoccatutti.