Spinner, Italy


Textiles and leather
Target Groups: 

The aim of the Spinner programme (Servizi per la Promozione dell’INNovazione E della Ricerca) started in 2000 in the Emilia-Romagna region was to regularise the business activities of Chinese entrepreneurs in accordance with Italian legislation. The initiative supported the regularisation of the companies on labour, security and safety, taxes, environment and urban planning issues to the conditions required by the Italian system, while transforming the immigrant workers of those businesses into active members of the economic and social system.


In the period 2000–2005, the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy has been a particularly attractive territory for self-employed people from non-EU countries, with an annual average increase of 20% in the number of such persons in the area. More specifically, the current proportion of Chinese nationals residing and working in the region amounts to 21.8% of all non-EU nationals.

The difficult social integration of these immigrants implies more frequent possibilities of irregular business operations. These conditions are particularly true for the Chinese business community in the textiles industry.

The qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the phenomenon, although well perceived at the political level, have not been measured. This has contributed to the failure of the policies aimed at improving the social and economic integration of this group.

The intervention area of the Spinner programme (Servizi per la Promozione dell’INNovazione E della Ricerca) is the Emilia-Romagna region, which is ranked second in Italy with respect to the comparative share of the Chinese Textiles Community (CTC) among the total number of companies in the area. The Spinner programme aims to bring the business operations of foreign nationals in line with national legislation. In the intervention area, the textiles industry shows a relatively fragmented production process – as is evident by the presence of industrial clusters – and low financial and technical entry barriers. Furthermore, the industry is in decline and is exposed to the effects of globalisation. Chinese entrepreneurs take on the labour-intensive activities such as sewing, in response to the rising demand for flexibility and improved economic conditions by larger local producers. On the one hand, this facilitates irregular working conditions and resistance to social integration on the part of Chinese nationals while, on the other hand, it secures the competitiveness of the production system.

The actors involved in the project’s operations include the following consortium:

  • European Social Fund of the European Commission Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities – provision of financial support;
  • local authority of the Emilia-Romagna region (Regione Emilia-Romagna) – provision of financial, political and administrative support;
  • National Agency for Enterprise and Inward Investment Development (Agenzia nazionale per l’attrazione degli investimenti e lo sviluppo di impresa SpA, Sviluppo Italia);
  • ASTER Development Agency for Science, Technology and Business (ASTER Scienza Tecnologia Impresa) – a regional research agency, providing technical support;
  • Alma Mater Foundation (Fondazione Alma Mater) – involved in the project’s establishment;
  • individuals or companies providing technical and administrative support.

During the implementation of the project, local public and private institutions provided technical assistance in relation to the following activities:

  • business training to the cultural and linguistic facilitators;
  • delivery of technical expertise for the regularisation process for Chinese entrepreneurs;
  • technical assistance with regard to ethical certification of businesses;
  • dissemination among Chinese entrepreneurs of the ‘Handbook for the transition to the regular and formal system’.

Ten cooperation agreements were signed with different organisations related to the specific territory, such as municipalities, universities and chambers of commerce.

Apart from the Spinner Project Management Group, other professionals were involved in the project’s operations, including 43 business administration consultants, 10 cultural and linguistic facilitators, and three junior researchers.

The Spinner project began as a pilot initiative in November 2000 and came to an end in June 2006. Initially, it was envisaged that the project would run for 30 months over the period 2001–2003; but as a result of the excellent results of the initiative, its funding was extended until 2006. The main target groups of the initiative included local institutional bodies, Chinese entrepreneurs and their workers, as well as local Italian textiles producers.


The aim of the Spinner project was to regularise the business activities of Chinese entrepreneurs in accordance with Italian legislation.

Its priorities included:

  • identifying the qualitative and quantitative parameters of the irregular business activities of Chinese nationals;
  • identifying the system of different individual and collective conditions favouring irregular business activities;
  • assessing the technical, economic and social sustainability of the regularisation process;
  • promoting paths of formalisation from the informal sector.

The intervention was aimed at the re-qualification of hidden business activities, by developing and enhancing different economic individual and collective potentials.

Transition and final formalisation is the product of a long-term process which aims to change social and economic behaviour at the public and private levels. Accordingly, the action was focused on a different set of possible mechanisms inducing formalisation of illegal business ventures. Likewise, the ‘irregular status’ was meant in a broader sense. The Spinner initiative supported the transition of all irregular aspects of CTC companies on labour, security and safety, taxes, environment and urban planning towards the social, legal and economic conditions required by the Italian system, while transforming the immigrant workers of those businesses into active members of the economic and social system.

The project identified environmental conditions – such as the legal and economic framework – as possible causes of the irregular economy. It also endeavoured to raise awareness of the issue among public and private institutions, stimulating their initiatives to encourage Chinese entrepreneurs and their workers to meet legal requirements.

Specific measures

The Chinese community in the Emilia-Romagna region shows poor levels of integration and interaction with the Italian community, as well as a low level of interest in processes that stimulate transition to formal economic and legal systems.

Spinner has highlighted the importance of Chinese activities in the intervention area – 1,110 craft workshops were in operation in 2005 according to 2005 data from the Italian Chamber of Commerce (Unioncamere). This represented 20% of the companies of the area, employing 9,000 workers (Spinner quantitative analysis). Such evidence has raised awareness levels of the extent of Chinese businesses among local institutions.

Later on, Spinner focused on the economic factors associated with these workshops, which were considered to be the advantage gained by Italian producers in subcontracting to Chinese workshops, as well as on the integration and usefulness of Chinese workshops for the textiles industry.

In order to better investigate the possible causes of irregular work, to set up effective opportunities of transition, and to create contacts with the Chinese community, the Spinner work group was progressively extended creating an increasingly diverse professional profile. In total, four economists, two sociologists, four cultural and linguistic facilitators and one sinologist – an expert of the Chinese language and culture – were involved.

Cultural and linguistic facilitators successfully contacted and started working with owners of craft workshops, in an effort to build trust, deliver information and provide transition services.

The economic benefits of the craft workshops were also one of the strong points from the Chinese entrepreneurs’ perspective. Together with the entrepreneurs, Spinner calculated the costs and opportunities of regular work compared with costs that may arise due to the irregularity of the work performed by the workshops. As a result, Spinner proposed feasible, realistic and sustainable regularisation processes.

Craft associations produced information files on the formal system. These files were then adopted in the ‘Handbook for the transition to the regular and formal system’.

Spinner delivered security and health and safety training courses in Chinese. Regularity audits within the participating craft workshops were carried out. Radio broadcasts in Chinese ensured a wider dissemination of the basic information on the different national laws and regulations.

During the course of the project, a growing network was set up among different actors interested in sharing this experience, offering their specific know-how to Spinner through the delivery of new transition services by local entities.

Evaluation and outcome

In 2006, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, and the Dubai Municipality selected the Spinner project as an example of best practice.

Achievement of objectives

The initiative produced direct and indirect results. In terms of direct results, it highlighted the size and structure of the irregular activities carried out by CTC productive units. For the first time, through the proactive intervention of cultural and linguistic facilitators, a structured contact procedure and involvement of the members of the CTC was created. Finally, a set of different tools was tested and implemented, including the first bilingual (Italian/Chinese) ‘Handbook for the transition to the regular and formal system’. One of the indirect outcomes included training sessions carried out at local institutions, teaching the employees how to improve interaction with local Chinese enterprises, in order to strengthen their intervention strategy.

Through the network’s activities, Spinner has:

  • contacted 390 Chinese enterprises – 32% of the total enterprises in the area;
  • visited 187 businesses – 17% of potential beneficiaries;
  • provided training to 167 Chinese enterprises;
  • delivered 70 consulting services – such as ‘Regularisation in the field of labour legislation’; ‘Town planning’; ‘Credit recovery for subcontractors’; ‘Tax obligations’;
  • trained 53 entrepreneurs in safety and security laws – 90% completed certified courses;
  • carried out 25 regularity audits.

Obstacles and problems

The Chinese community shows low levels of integration and interaction with the Italian community due to the lack of interest in any process that favours the transition to formal economic and legal systems. Therefore, the main obstacle faced by the project was establishing contacts with targeted entrepreneurs. Through the project, it became evident that supporting transition processes requires building trust, removing cultural barriers, and adopting a long-term intervention strategy.

Lessons learnt

The status of non-conformity is due to different causes, which are not always of an economic nature. Among immigrant communities, social and cultural barriers – such as language or the role of the family – create considerable obstacles. While setting up policies favouring the transition to the formal system, it is not possible to ignore specific local economic conditions.

Transition policies have to be supported by a network able to establish a ‘finely-meshed’ and long-term presence in a particular reference area. Moreover, transition policies cannot only plan for preventative actions, but also have to stimulate the active involvement of potential beneficiaries through a multidisciplinary approach.

Impact indicators

A performance assessment was carried out for the four main steps of the process.

Dissemination and information activities

In terms of dissemination and the provision of information on the project, Spinner carried out the following:

  • published statistics and descriptive reports;
  • encouraged participation in public events on Spinner methodologies and results;
  • issued international and national press releases, as well as video footage relating to the project.

Sharing the strategy and tools

Throughout the course of the project, Spinner aimed to encourage sharing of information between the various participants by:

  • issuing protocols, memorandums of understanding, and agreements;
  • involving the various project participants in the network/institutional meetings;
  • using technical assistance services.

Size and types of network

Setting up the support network incorporated the following elements:

  • involvement of experts;
  • days or sessions of ‘training the trainers’.

‘Transition’ services

Transition services included:

  • contacting entrepreneurs;
  • visiting the various enterprises;
  • encouraging participants to attend group meetings;
  • offering entrepreneurs services of facilitation towards formalisation;
  • inviting individuals to attend security and safety training courses;
  • carrying out regularity audits among participating entrepreneurs.
Estimated costs of Spinner project
Partner Total cost

European Union (45% of the Spinner budget)


Emilia-Romagna region (55% of the Spinner budget)


Total Spinner budget



The Spinner project was nominated as a ‘Best practice’ initiative for the 2006 Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment (DIABP).

The scheme was a pilot project aimed at inspiring other similar interventions. In some Italian and European areas, CTC conditions appear to be similar to those in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy: for example, a concentration of Chinese entrepreneurs in the textiles sector, localisation on already existing clusters, growth rates and percentage shares of CTC in Spain and Portugal are similar.

In consideration of the fact that operational tools, tailored to the specific regional context, can be used immediately for the purpose of the project, the cost-effectiveness ratio of the transfer will be particularly favourable. Yet, results may become evident in the shorter term.

If necessary, the methodology and tools produced as part of the Spinner project can be adapted for facilitating the transition to regularised activities of different groups of non-EU business communities.


The action is an original experiment and had no inspiration from other initiatives. Spinner’s results highlight the added value of the experimental action, especially concerning policy measures taken to transform cases of undeclared work into regular employment.

For the first time, this action implemented a ‘bottom-up’ approach, focusing first on the needs of the immigrant entrepreneur. The overall aim of the project was to turn immigrant entrepreneurs and workers into active components of the economic and social system.


Main organisation responsible: Sviluppo Italia Spa

Contact: Stefano Massari, email: smassari@sviluppoitalia.it

Websites: www.spinner.it; www.sviluppoitalia.it


Gaudino, S., ‘Il progetto Spinner’, in Bàculo, L., Politiche di emersione e politiche di sviluppo locale, Naples, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane (ESI), 2004.

Spinner Report Azione 3, Favorire l’Emersione della Comunità cinese operante nel settore TA–Confezione delle Province di Modena e Reggio Emilia, 2002.

Spinner Report Azione 3, I cinesi nel distretto del Tessile-Abbigliamento delle province di Modena e Reggio Emilia: modelli di insediamento, attività produttive e prospettive future, 2003.

Spinner Report Azione 3, Analisi statistica sulle economie etniche e la non regolarità d’impresa in Emilia Romagna, 2004.

Spinner Report Azione 3, Economia del laboratorio TA cinese in Emilia Romagna. Le attività produttive, il lavoro e le criticità nel quadro delle relazioni di filiera, 2005.

Spinner Report Azione 3, Analisi statistica sull’imprenditoria extracomunitaria in Italia e nelle regioni Toscana, Lombardia, Emilia Romagna e Veneto, 2005.

Spinner Report Azione 3, I cinesi e gli altri. L’imprenditoria extracomunitaria in Italia, 2006.

Spinner Report Azione 3, L’imprenditoria cinese in Emilia Romagna, 2006.

Spinner Report Azione 3, Percorsi di emersione: l’Azione pilota Spinner, 2007.

Unioncamere, Rapporto Unioncamere 2005, Rome, 2005.

Liliana Bàculo and Sara Gaudino

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