The street trader scoops up posters from the ancient, cobbled streets of Florence like a black-jack croupier; lifting the cards in one fell swoop–each tiny shard of stiffened paper falling neatly behind the other in his palm.
The police have arrived. By foot on the magnificent Ponte Vecchio, by car outside the Uffizi Gallery, where they meander slowly towards the many traders—a wry smile on their lips. It’s a game. The police know these men and women, mostly black, are mainly illegal immigrants; plying their wares to the awe-struck tourists who’ll buy anything from the pavements of this historic Renaissance city. And don’t discount the locals, after a cheap umbrella, as the winter rain begins to plummet.
The trader knows the rules, pack and run; run fast. Or, linger, make eye contact with the officers. Will they let it slide this time? For the bemused onlooker, it’s like a game of tag. If the officers grab the trader, game over. There’s no gentle warning in this tourist hub. But, as the police car pulls away, another trader replaces his street-space rival and the posters are back on the ground within seconds. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean and the occasional Botticelli copy. The handbags, the sunglasses, all fake, the rows and rows of gloves; laid out neatly again.
As the officers leave, they know that to look back is to roll the dice again. Maybe tomorrow.
Submerged, underground, black market. Call it what you will, but money generated from this form of labour in Italy is estimated to account for 20 to 30 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
While trade has been the backbone of the country for hundreds of years, the influx of illegal immigrants to Florence and other cities in Italy, from Africa, the Middle East, China and Latin America, is a relatively new phenomenon.
A United States Department of State report on human rights practices, released in 2004, said that the number of illegal immigrants in Italy increased by a whopping 43 per cent in 2003, as a result of legislation the previous year allowing a grace period in which illegal immigrants could become legal residents. However, integration and cultural assimilation have proven difficult, leading to an isolated and disaffected sub-society which relies on underground work or unskilled labour to make a living. Those who don’t take their employment prospects into their own hands are often under protected and over exploited in the second tier of the illegal work force, which includes domestic work and hard labour.
Recently, the Berlusconi government launched a crackdown on counterfeit merchandise sold by the traders on the streets, in an effort to protect local manufacturers and fashion houses. Local producers are under threat from greater quality fakes which are becoming more authentic in appearance, allowing a whole section of middle income earning locals, as well as tourists, to wear the latest “Prada”, “Gucci” and “Fendi” without mortgaging the Motto.
The International Herald Tribune reported last month (Jan 2006) that nine out of ten fakes seized as part of the government crackdown so far have been taken from roaming vendors on the streets and plazas of Italy. However, for the busy tourist, stunned by the beauty of Florence from every vantage point, the street traders are but a passing curiosity; occasionally raising ire, if it’s been a long, hot day, but equally capable of generating gratitude, if it’s pouring with rain, or pelting snow and they’re stuck without an umbrella, gloves or a scarf.
But for the economy and the future of Italian fashion houses, the impact of cheap, Asian-produced, high quality goods remains to be seen. Although one suspects that those who can afford Gucci and Prada and Fendi will continue to buy the real thing, while those who can’t will simply continue to buy off the streets. A happy equilibrium which seems to work reasonably well, for now.