No action as Argentina’s illegal sweatshops flourish

Two-thirds of the clothing industry is conducted in illegal workshops, like one where two young boys died last month.

No action as Argentina''s illegal sweatshops flourish, Daniel Schweimler blog
The slogan reads 'Every child matters' [Daniel Schweimler]

In Argentina they call sweatshops talleres clandestinos or clandestine workshops. But everyone, it seems, knows where they are.

They certainly now know the whereabouts of the one on the corner of Páez and Terrada streets in the Flores neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. For there was a fire there last month that killed two young boys, Rolando and Rodrigo.

The neighbours have painted a mural, at the base of which sit burnt candles and withered flowers. A pile of sodden clothes blocks the pavement and police guard the charred doorframes.

Omar Ruiz lives a few doors away. “Behind all those houses you see there are sweatshops,” he said. “Secret launderies and boilers they use for industrial ironing.”

Ruiz said there were six more sweatshops just on his block which the city authorities had been advised of.

The city government said it didn’t know that Páez 2796 was a sweatshop.

Ruiz said fires were common, and although the cause of this latest one was still being investigated, it was possibly ignited by a spark from industrial sewing machines being plugged into overloaded domestic sockets.

Since the fire, the Alameda Foundation, which campaigns for better working conditions, has identified hundreds more sweatshops in and around Buenos Aires which, along with Sao Paulo, has one of the greatest concentrations of the illegal textile industry in South America.

Bolivian workers

Like Rolando and Rodrigo, most of the workers come from Bolivia, enticed to Argentina with the promise of housing and well-paid jobs.

Olga Cruz came in 2000 with her two young children. Like many she was recruited by an agency in Bolivia that took her passport.

She said: “I was working with nine other people in a tiny space where there was no room for us to move.

“We were hardly allowed to go to the toilet. We ate breakfast at our machines and we ate lunch at our machines.”

Cruz escaped and now works for the Alameda Foundation’s sewing cooperative – a maximum of eight hours a day and with a share of the profits.

“It’s like in this country the laws don’t exist,” she said. “No-one takes any notice of us foreigners, no-one cares about our work conditions.”

Gustavo Vera is a Buenos Aires city deputy who also campaigns with Alameda.

“We’re talking about 68 percent of the Argentine clothing industry being conducted in sweatshops,” he said.

“Informal work, forced labour, people who work more than 12 hours a day without any rights and even slave labour with workers living and working in the same place without being able to leave.”

Vera wants the law changed to prevent government departments buying from the sweatshops.

He also said the big name brands should declare that they don’t use what he called slave labour.

More than 100 well known national and international brands, (including the Spanish firm Zara and the sports giants Puma and Adidas) have been named in legal proceedings as alleged sweatshop customers.

They all either deny the charge or say they’re attempting to disassociate themselves from them.

Highest price

The clothing is sold on the pavements around Buenos Aires and at La Salada – a huge site on the outskirts of Buenos Aires that has been described as the biggest counterfeit clothing market in South America.

A few days after the fire at Páez 2796, Bolivian workers and Argentine trade unions, accompanied by local residents, marched to the site of another sweatshop fire that in 2006 killed six Bolivian workers, five of them children.

The owners were never prosecuted. Two managers are appealing against their three-year jail sentences. 

The marchers unrolled strips of cloth tied into a long string which they looped around trees and lampposts along the 2km route between the two houses.

They marched in 2006 too. There was outrage and indignation and promises by the authorities that they would tackle the sweatshop industry. The number of sweatshops has only grown.

While immigrants work 16 or more hours a day, in cramped and insanitary conditions, for a few cents or nothing at all, the profit margins for the owners are mouth-watering.

And what shopper doesn’t want brand name clothing at knockdown prices?

But Rolando and Rodrigo, aged 10 and seven, paid the highest price of all.

Source: Al Jazeera