This doctoral dissertation research project seeks to investigate the role played by migrants in the increasingly globalized textile and clothing (T&C) industry. The project will contribute to a better understanding of the complex interaction between economic globalization and labor migration, as well as flows of capital, and commodities, by considering the role of Chinese migrants in maintaining Italy's clothing industry. Italy is well-regarded in the T&C industry for its brand of fine clothing, and has become the largest host of Chinese immigrants in Europe, where these skilled migrants and entrepreneurs have become key to its T&C industry. It therefore provides an opportunity for the investigation of the role of immigrants in the maintenance of an industry of national importance. The influx of Chinese migrants has brought about a restructuring of the T&C industry as Chinese firms, operating locally and often in collaboration with Italian ones, are increasingly used to "in-source" production as an alternative to out-sourcing it to China. Specifically, this project seeks to understand the positions that Chinese apparel firms occupy in the Italian T&C production network. In particular, it will identify the major reasons why Italian firms are willing to conduct transactions with local Chinese firms, instead of directly outsourcing to China. It also considers the extent to which the competitiveness of Chinese apparel firms is supported by a variety of ethnic business networks in Italy, and by migrant workers and fabrics from China. Methodologies include surveys, interviews, and participatory mapping exercises with entrepreneurs in Italy and in China. This research will contribute to the fields of globalization, migrations studies and economic geography. The research will inform new theories on in-sourcing and questions about the sustainability of assembly production in high-cost and high-value regions, which is of interest to industrialists and policy makers. Academic dissemination and outreach presentations of this research are planned. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Project Report

The research investigated the recent emergence of a Chinese apparel industry in Prato, Tuscany, and was able to demonstrate some of the ways in which the in-migration of Chinese firms and workers has reshaped Italian apparel industrial districts. With 3,250 manufacturing firms registered by Chinese owners in 2011, the Chinese apparel industry in Prato has scaled up to such a degree that it is now a major actor in the industry. Mainly serving the lower cost market, Chinese apparel firms are increasingly criticized by locals for competing with the Pratese textile industry which serves the high-end market. This research highlights two main findings. First, the Pratese industrial district has always been highly adaptice to changes of institutional context and global markets, and Chinese firms have contributed to productivity and reduced costs across the sector. In effect, Chinese entrepreneurs and workers have not competed with more traditional Pratese firms, but they have underwritten and supported their ability to sustain profitability in the regional economy. Second, the internal structure of the Chinese apparel value chain in Prato and its relations with local communities have been inadvertently shaped by a series of Italian and Chinese immigration regulations. These have inadvertently supported the dramatic growth of Chinese apparel firms and the sustainability of the Chinese production network.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill
United States
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