Italy joined the group of European nations with a positive migratory balance in 1980, but now the presence of an immigrant workforce is definitely embedded in the Italian development model. The shift from a net emigration to net immigration country occurred when the internal migration from southern Italy, which had provided the factories in northern Italy with the necessary manpower for their economic development, was coming to an end, and productive decentralization was beginning with the re-emergence of small businesses. Twenty years later, small dynamic businesses that are mainly clustered in industrial districts specializing in local production are a distinctive feature of the Italian economy to the extent that among industrialized countries Italy counts the largest number of small businesses and the lowest number of employees per business (Accornero, 2000). Starting from the 1980s, opportunities for a low-skilled labour force opened for new migrants mainly in these productive activities. In addition, throughout the 1980s and the 1990s niche opportunities for self-employment in workshops producing for Italian suppliers were also appearing or expanding.

Among other migrant groups arriving in Italy were those of Chinese origin. The crucial time for the recent migration flow from China to Italy — either directly or via other European countries, such as France and Holland — can be dated from the early 1980s. Since then, a succession of unskilled workers originating almost exclusively from the south-eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang arrived in the country, after the family-based chains of emigration that had almost come to a halt during the years of the Cultural Revolution had again been revitalized.

The number of immigrants of Chinese origin has grown rapidly over the last 20 years, as has the number of businesses owned by the Chinese. By today, the Chinese migrant community shows the strongest entrepreneurial aptitude, and, according to recent national data, account for the largest number of small business owners among non-European Union (EU) immigrants in Italy.

Unlike the situation in most of the western European countries, such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, where the Chinese are active mainly in the catering service, in Italy their main areas of activity are the production of ready-to-wear garments, leather garments and bags, and woollen sweaters. Until recently, these seemed to be the only productive sectors open to Chinese immigrants. However, new trends are emerging in the employment patterns of the Chinese in Italy. The two most striking new features are the expansion from performing only simple manufacturing tasks for Italian suppliers to actually managing the entire productive process in the garment sector, and the growing employment in Italian firms, especially in the dynamic industrial districts where migrants of other origins were already working in large numbers.