Bolivian workers in Argentina are pressing the government to take action against slave-like conditions inside clandestine textile shops after a fire in a factory killed six people in Buenos Aires on March 30th. The government has initiated inspections of seamstress shops employing Bolivians and Paraguayans. Inspectors shut down at least 100 of these plants.
â€œWe have had to remain silent and accept abuse. I’m tired of taking the blows. We are starting to fight compaÃ±eros, thank you for being here.â€ These are the words of Ana Salazar at an assembly of textile workers on a Sunday evening. The blaze that killed six peopleâ€”including four children and two womenâ€”has brought light to abusive working conditions inside a network of clandestine textile plants in Buenos Aires.
Representatives from the Union of Seamstress Workers, an assembly of undocumented textile workers reported at least 8,000 cases of labor abuses inside the city’s nearly 400 clandestine seamstress shops in the past months. Around 100,000 undocumented immigrants work in these unsafe plants with an average wage of $100 per month, if they are paid at all.
According to Olga, a textile worker who asked for her last name to be omitted because of safety issues, slave-like conditions in textile factories are systematic. â€œDuring a normal workday in a shop you work from 7 a.m. until midnight or 1 a.m. Many times they don’t pay the women and they owe them two or three years pay. For not having our legal documents or not knowing what our rights are in Argentina we’ve had to remain silent. You don’t have rights to rent a room or to work legally.â€
In many cases the workers were drawn into the network through radio or newspaper adds in Bolivia promising decent wages, room, board, and transportation to Buenos Aires. Workers are transported in trucks and must cross into Argentina illegally. Once inside the textile factory they are forced to work 16 to 18 hours per day and are warned that if they complain they will lose their jobs and will be put out on the streets. Over 40 percent of workers live inside factories and in many cases they are locked inside. Witnesses said that 25 families were living in four square meter rooms inside the plant that caught fire.
The Union of Seamstress Workers (Union de Trabajadores Costureros, UTC) formed out of a neighborhood assembly in the working class neighborhood of Parque Avalleneda. Initially, the assembly was a social center for families on Sundays, the only day textile workers can leave the shop. Families began to gather at the assembly location, situated on the corner of a park. Later, Bolivian textile workers without any union representation formed the UTC because Argentina’s traditional unions refuse to accept undocumented affiliates.
Nestor Escudero, an Argentine who participates in the UTC, says that police, inspectors, and courts are also responsible for the documented slave-like conditions inside textile factories. â€œThis organization that’s only four months old formed from the labor conflicts in the textile workshops in the neighborhood, where in many cases conditions are reduced to slavery. They bring in illegal immigrants to brutally exploit them. The textile worker is paid 75 cents for a garment that is later sold for $50. This profit is enough to pay bribes and keep this system going.â€
Since 2003, thousands of reports of slave-like conditions have piled up in the courts without any resolution. In many cases when workers have presented reports to police of poor treatment including threats, physical abuse, and forced labor the police say they can’t act because the victims do not have their DNI, a national identity card. Escudero of the UTC has confirmed that several textile workers have received death threats for reporting to media outlets on slave-like conditions inside the textile plants.
The clandestine textile network emerged in the late 1990s in Buenos Aires, following the influx of inexpensive Asian textile imports. Many of the textile factory owners are Argentine, Korean, or Bolivian. The workers manufacture garments for high-end brands like LacÃ¡r and Montage. Clandestine textile factories have grown into an annual $700 million industry.
For illegal immigrants in Argentina, survival is a vicious cycle. Undocumented workers are especially susceptible to threats of losing their jobs. Workers cannot afford to rent a room and many resident hotel managers are unwilling to rent rooms to immigrants, especially when they have children. Many immigrants have been treated for serious health conditions related to sub-human working conditions including tuberculosis and lung problems from the permanent presence of dust and fibers as well as back problems. Finding legal work is almost impossible without a national identity card. Today in Argentina, 45% of the total population works off the books (without any legal contract).
The UTC has formally presented charges against Bolivia’s Consulate in Buenos Aires, Alvaro Gonzalez Quint, for charging immigrants up to $100 (equivalent to the average monthly salary paid to textile workers) to complete paperwork necessary for their documentation. Gonzalez Quint has protested against the strict measures that the Buenos Aires city government has implemented in the textile plants. The Argentine League for Human Rights has also charged Gonzalez Quint in a Federal Court for connection to the network of immigrant smuggling into the clandestine textile plants.
Bolivian President Evo Morales sent a delegation to investigate conditions for immigrants in Argentina after the fire incident March 30th. The Bolivian commission called for the Buenos Aires government to legalize undocumented workers. Before the tragic factory blaze, the UTC had also pushed for the government to legalize illegal immigrants. The government has stated that new offices will be open to legalize textile workers free of charge.
Since the closures, a wave of factories has moved to the Buenos Aires suburbs as a way of avoiding the newly imposed inspections. Textile workers are organizing a series of marches to demand that the foremen and owners of the factory that caught fire be brought to justice. They are also pushing for the mass legalization of immigrants, housing for immigrants living in poverty, and an end to workshop slavery.
Marie Trigona is a regular contributor for the IRC Americas Program, online at www.americaspolicy.com. She can be reached at [email protected] To learn more about the UTC visit www.agoratv.org.