The use of sweatshop labor in the apparel industry is not just a U.S. thing and it doesn’t just take place in Bangladesh. Rather, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that needs to be fought on an international scale. This story about the terrible conditions of sweatshops in Buenos Aires is an example. Taking advantage of impoverished Bolivian workers, employers skirt laws in order to profit.
The death of two Bolivian boys in a fire and the mistreatment and sexual abuse of a young Bolivian woman put the problem of slave-like labour conditions in clandestine sweatshops back in the headlines.
The state, the textile and fashion industries, and consumers mutually blame each other for the problem.
The two brothers aged seven and 10 died on April 27 in a fire in one of the numerous clandestine garment workshops in Flores, a Buenos Aires City neighbourhood, where their parents, immigrants from Bolivia, were living and working.
A few days earlier, Rosa Payro, a 21-year-old from Bolivia, was rescued from another sweatshop on the outskirts of Buenos Aries after nearly three years of being raped, beaten, tortured and held captive by distant relatives she was working for.
These two cases reflect a complex situation, Juan Vásquez, a former sweatshop worker who now forms part of Simbiosis Cultural, a collective of Bolivian immigrants seeking to draw attention to the appalling conditions in the clandestine workshops, told IPS.
“When people talk about slave labour, they think of it as a ‘Bolivian’ thing and they don’t associate it with consumerism, with local working class people, with the connivance of the national and city governments,” said Vásquez. “We are merely the leftovers, the excluded, the exiled.”
According to the La Alameda Foundation, there are some 3,000 sweatshops in and around Buenos Aires alone, with an average of 10 employees each. The majority of the roughly 30,000 workers are from Bolivia, the region’s poorest country. But there are also Peruvians, as well as workers from other Argentine provinces.
“They live in the same place where they are exploited, and they work over 16 hours a day,” said Lucas Schaerer, spokesman for the La Alameda Foundation, which fights slave and child labour and the trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation. “They are completely under the control of their boss.”
He told IPS that “they’re forced to pay taxes, they eat in the same place they work, in inhumane conditions. Their meals, discounted from their wages, are skimpy, which is why they have a high incidence of tuberculosis. They live in concentration camp-style dormitories with bunkbeds and bathrooms shared by 30, 50, 60 people.”
Officials blame each other or take the real easy way out and talk about illegal immigration. But the reason these sweatshops exist is that no one in power cares about these people. Even the Argentine government is contracting with some of these sweatshops. There are people fighting these conditions, including Bolivian migrants, but as the story shows, the exploitation and murder of workers continues apace.