On a bright, sweltering morning a few days after Italy’s Aug. 15 holiday, during a week when most Italians were supine at seaside rentals, a squad of four female police officers pulled up on a leafy residential street in the Tuscan city of Prato. They parked in front of a 10-story cement apartment building, marched down a ramp, and pushed open a door into the building’s parking garage. Once their eyes adjusted to the dark interior, they spotted about 50 adults and children, who, it soon became clear, were all Chinese immigrants, living in an airless warren of gypsum cubicles. The group shared a single makeshift bathroom and a hobbit-sized kitchen with a plastic ceiling four feet off the floor. There was a freezer crammed with chicken feet and dried fish, and strips of dried meat hanging on clothes hangers.
Their sources of income were near at hand: 18 sewing machines coated in white lint, stationed next to plastic bags bulging with fabric—the raw material for dozens of identical white ladies’ shirts that the workers had been producing daily.