The Disturbing Reality of Sweatshops

As an activist involved with so-called “anti-globalization” campaigns I heard a lot about sweatshops, though I never really thought they were a relevant issue in Brazil. By chance, in 2001, one of the activists in my group got a job at a multinational garment manufacturer where she learned about the terrible things happening behind the label. When our group learned about that we had to make a critical choice.

Working as a designer in one of the largest garment companies in the world, she had a vivid experience of the process that critics of corporate globalization call “race to the bottom”. The race to the bottom is a process where free deregulated international competition forces down laws protecting labor, the environment and the consumer. In this particular company, the race to the bottom was a concrete internal process. The company has several factories in countries such as Brazil, China and Indonesia, and they all compete among themselves to make the product items at the cheapest cost.

Our friend, for example, designed a bag for the company and all the branch factories had to present budgets competing to produce the piece for the cheapest price. In the long run, this process forced the local factories to ever-greater salary cuts and reduction in benefits. At the macro-economic level, this process, generalized at different segments of production, forced the annulment of social protection laws that were seen as a weight to the country’s competitiveness in the international market. On this particular company, the process led the production to be outsourced by the late 1990s.

Before production was outsourced, the Brazilian factory had to increase the pace of production and cut salaries and benefits in order to maintain competitiveness, as international competition augmented. This aggressive pressure against workers’ rights led to several conflicts with the union. Subcontracting appeared then as a magic solution to the problem. The factory would contract “independent” small shops that would gladly take the job and the burden of violating workers rights would be out of the back of the company. So this was done.

Since the 1990s, small shops run by Korean immigrants began to spread all over the Brás and Bom Retiro textile districts in São Paulo as they would not only sell their production to small stores, but would then also do subcontracted production for the big corporations. Most large companies would then only do in their own factories the labeling and other final production processes — shifting all dirty jobs to the shops. As this market of subcontracts began to expand, the Koreans who started their shops as family enterprises became businessmen hiring other immigrants: at first, newly-arrived Koreans, and later, Bolivians and Colombians escaping from misery and war in their countries.

The status of illegal immigrants in Brazil allowed that the pushing down on workers’ rights be taken to an unbelievable degree. My friend realized that when she had the chance to visit one of those shops. The shop was located in the Brás textile district in the very downtown of São Paulo. She was completely astonished to see the 19th century conditions under which people worked and wondered how this could happen right under our nose, at the center of the largest and richest city of South America.

She had the chance to talk to one of the workers who told scaring stories about their conditions which included working 6 days a week over 11 hours a day under terrible conditions of lightening, food, heat, and disciplinary measures. Several workers also complained of sexual abuses and enslavement by debt. As illegal immigrants they had no rights at all (in Brazil, even the right to assemble is denied to illegal immigrants) and were at constant risk of deportation. This was sometimes used as a pretext by shops’ foremen to keep workers locked, living and working in the factory and having to pay rent and buy food from the shop — usually contracting debts beyond their incredibly low salaries (as low as 50 US dollars a month).

Our group, Ação Local por Justiça Global, were in the middle of the organizing of the S29 and N30 2001 protests against the war in Afghanistan and the WTO when we heard those stories. It seemed so incredible that that was happening in such a large scale without people really knowing about it. We simply had to do something. We started by trying to locate the shops, which was actually an easy task — all you had to do was to walk in the textile district at evening and follow the sound of the machines that were kept busy until very late.

We tried to interview some workers, but they were very reluctant about talking to strangers. One member of our group was fired at by a gun when trying to interview a worker and later she was kidnapped and threatened by a foreman. We contacted the seamsters’ union, which was aware of the problem, but whose only solution was to shut down the factories, send immigrants back home and put unionized Brazilians in their place. Not much for international solidarity.

The only group really assisting the workers was the Catholic Church who did a wonderful job giving them shelter and food, but who were not deeply concerned with the politics of the whole thing. The Church estimates that 100,000 illegal immigrants work in sweatshops under near slave conditions in São Paulo alone. They are not aware, however, of the connections between the small shops and the big multinationals. Actually, the link between shops and companies is very thoughtfully conceived. Workers at the shop have no clue that the garment they are producing is sent to a multinational to be labeled and sold to the international market. Only the owner of the shop is aware of the link.

So, at this point we were at a very difficult situation: to do what? We contacted some people who tried to denounce to police what was going on and a couple of them got death threats from the Korean mafia who protected businesses and others simply saw that a couple of small shops got shut by federal police and workers got deported. Nothing was ever said about the big companies contracting the shops. Those people wondered whether it was worth denouncing — because as bad as the situation in São Paulo was, many workers still preferred to be here than to go back to their land.

The only way to solve the problem was to fight simultaneously at two fronts: proving the links between the shops and multinationals and fighting the absurd, outrageous, inhuman Brazilian laws regulating immigration. We started some contacts with the Church who had a very institutional and (in my view) shy campaign for immigrant rights and we also tried to strategize a way to prove the links between the shops and the labels (for example, by identifying patented textiles that only a certain brand can use).

But the fact was that we were overwhelmed by the task. We had to contact workers, gain their trust and be very careful not to be killed by the Korean mafia who had previously beaten up and death threatened a university researcher and a union person who tried to get information about the sweatshops. We had to denounce the shops and the multinationals behind them, but in a way as not to risk the workers of deportation. At the end, we just couldn’t do it — I’m not sure if we lacked the energy, the numbers or the courage.

We still try to follow the struggle of the immigrants for their rights and the fight against the sweatshops, but all of us have the bad consciousness of not having done enough. I feel so bad about this that I decided to write this report to your knowledge.

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