By  on December 2, 2013

MILAN — A fire broke out early Sunday morning in the Chinese-run Teresa Moda garment factory in Prato, Tuscany, causing the death of seven Chinese laborers and injuring several others. The workers were apparently living, eating and sleeping at the factory, and the death toll could rise as the fire department clears the rubble.

“It’s an enormous tragedy. Faced with these poor people who lost their lives simply to work, seeking their fortunes in a foreign country, the pain is immense. We express all our solidarity to the affected families and the entire Chinese community,” said the Prato province’s vice president Ambra Giorgi. She added, “Nothing can remain the same. We all must work to improve collaboration with the Chinese community through change that places human and workers’ rights resolutely in the foreground, along with the inescapable principle of the law.”

Though Italy prides itself on tough workplace safety regulations, the numerous illegal operations that have sprouted in Prato — many of them Chinese operated — are a thorn in the country’s side, and the Italian press was quick to lament local authorities’ lack of control over the situation.

Francesco Rotondi, founding partner of Lablaw, a Milan studio specializing in Italian labor law, said the immigration status of the factory owners — legal or otherwise — did not change the penalties they could face in court, ranging from payment of damages to prison time.

“When accidents happen, there is always an outcry, but with more preventive inspections many of these could be avoided,” he said, adding that a majority of companies operating with unsafe conditions or excessively long worker shifts go unpunished, because they outnumber the people carrying out inspections.

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