Italian police have arrested a Chinese couple accused of running a leather goods business which exploited immigrant workers it employed to make handbags for a Burberry supplier, according to an arrest warrant seen by Reuters.
Tax police in Florence said in a statement that the two Chinese nationals were arrested on Wednesday as part of an investigation into alleged labour exploitation and tax fraud and that restrictive measures had been imposed on two other family members, including a ban on them leaving Italy.
British luxury group Burberry, which is not accused of any wrongdoing, had no immediate comment on the case.
The police statement, which did not name the companies involved, said the four had exploited immigrant workers from countries including China, Pakistan and Bangladesh, making them work up to 14 hours a day for just over 3 euros an hour, and that police had seized 523,000 euros ($609,350).
The arrest warrant, seen by Reuters and which details the allegations against the four, said they effectively ran a leather goods company based on the outskirts of Florence called Samipell Srl which worked as a subcontractor to Tivoli Group Spa, a Burberry supplier. Samipell’s owners exploited at least 40 immigrant workers, taking advantage of “their state of need” to make Burberry handbags for Tivoli, the warrant said.
Tivoli, which is not under investigation, did not reply to phone calls and an email seeking comment. Reuters was unable to contact the Chinese nationals under investigation and a lawyer representing them was not immediately available for comment.
Samipell was set up in 2014 and was declared bankrupt by a Florence court in March 2021, according to the warrant.
Florence chief prosecutor Giuseppe Creazzo told a news conference that the arrests were the latest in a crackdown against labour exploitation and irregular work contracts in the area, which is dotted with hundreds of textile and leather goods artisan workshops.
Italy accounts for around 40 percent of manufacturing for the global fashion and luxury industry.
Creazzo said the Chinese people under investigation were subcontractors for a luxury fashion brand but declined to name it.
“We have no evidence that the fashion house was directly involved in this scheme, so don’t ask me for names,” he said.
The arrest warrant includes a transcript of a wiretapped phone conversation in which one of the Chinese people under investigation is quoted as telling a Tivoli employee that, if needed, he will make workers toil through the night to dye small “Title” bags, a type of Burberry handbag which sells for around 1,500 euros ($1,830).
The warrant said the Chinese couple had opened and closed a series of leather goods companies since 2013 to evade taxes and the authorities, transferring workers and machinery from one business to the other but keeping the same address.
Police in the nearby town of Prato, home to one of Europe’s biggest Chinese communities, last month placed two Chinese nationals under house arrest for allegedly exploiting Chinese and African workers to make luxury handbags for Chloe. Chloe owner Richemont did not reply to an email seeking comment on the case.
By Silvia Ognibene and Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Tattersall