By Massimiliano Di Giorgio
ROME (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors are preparing to open a manslaughter investigation over a fire that killed seven Chinese workers at a factory in Tuscany on Sunday, a disaster which highlighted rampant abuses in a sprawling network of illegal garment workshops.
Officials said authorities were struggling to control the thousands of Chinese factories that had transformed the town of Prato in recent years, often employing unregistered workers in conditions unions describe as "near slavery".
"Most of the companies are organized like this. It's the Far West," Prato chief prosecutor Piero Tony told local media.
"Controls on security and issues relating to the workers are inadequate despite the efforts of local authorities and law enforcement officials. We are underequipped as a bureaucratic structure, we're designed for a city that doesn't exist any more, the city of 30 years ago."
The fire in an industrial zone near Prato on Sunday killed seven workers who were apparently sleeping in an improvised dormitory built above the workshop where they were employed. The seven have not been formally identified and the cause of the blaze is still being investigated.
Tony said Prato prosecutors were preparing to open a formal investigation against two or three individuals into suspected offences including multiple manslaughter. Speaking on RAI state radio, he said the immediate suspects were all Chinese but he would not rule out targeting Italian nationals as well.
In a statement to parliament, Labour Minister Enrico Giovannini said the owner of the factory, a 44-year-old resident of Rome of Chinese origin, had been identified but had not been found by police.
"The tragic incident in Prato underlines the need to increase checks which have already been undertaken in the area for some time," he said.
Prato, with some 15,000 Chinese residents in a population of under 200,000, and thousands of others believed to be working in the area illegally, has become one of the centers of a shadow economy based around ill-supervised and often illegal workshops turning out garments for export as well as for well-known retailers.
Authorities have been struggling to contain the situation for years, setting up a special task force in 2010 involving local officials and law enforcement bodies. But the situation has worsened as Italy's economic recession has cut resources.
"It's true, the crisis is changing, and in some ways worsening the abuses that inspectors are seeing," Giovannini told the daily La Stampa.
He said the abuses were not limited to Prato but were also seen in other parts of the country, notably around the crime-ridden southern city of Naples, suggesting the problem was even more serious than it appeared.
"The main province in terms of irregularities is Naples. Prato is at number 10," he said.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Ralph Boulton)