Sao Paulo is one of the world’s most dynamic and populous cities, Brazil’s financial capital and a magnet for economic migrants from neighbouring countries.
But as a team led by journalist Ana Aranha and filmmaker Lali Houghton has been finding out for this disturbing episode of Latin America Investigates, it is also home to thousands of clandestine textile sweatshops, in which under-paid workers toil long and exhausting hours in dreadful conditions to mass produce garments for the country’s clothing industry.
By Lali Houghton
In the heart of Sao Paulo lies a bustling textile sector known as Bras. Its origins began with the arrival of Jewish migrants in the early 1900s. Now it is predominantly run by Koreans, though there is a notable presence of Bolivians, both legal and clandestine, some of whom are trapped in conditions akin to modern-day slavery.
The clothes here reach wholesalers all over the country, feeding a massive consumer market, the fifth biggest in the world, at highly competitive prices. And yet keeping prices low comes with a human cost, where the lines between outsourcing and degrading working conditions blur together.
Only a week after we left the Bras neighbourhood, a fire broke out killing five Bolivians. Video footage showed fire fighters extracting burned sewing machines. Labour inspectors spoke of precarious conditions indicative of the illegality and lack of safety the workers were facing.
And yet rather than this clandestine industry being curtailed, it has expanded to the outskirts of the city where it is harder to spot.
We travelled with a special unit of the Labour Ministry as they pursued a network of sweatshops catering for Brazilian brands.
There we documented the “liberation” of a couple called Christian and Delia, who barely a month before had been duped into coming to Sao Paulo from La Paz, Bolivia.
They found themselves working 15-hour shifts, Monday to Saturday, without receiving a cent. The manager told them they had to work off the costs of their trip and then had to pay for “training” for the next three months even though they had sewing experience back in Bolivia.
Neither of them spoke Portuguese or knew of their rights as workers.
This phenomenon goes back to the 1990s. Lamentably it is often Bolivians perpetuating a system of symbolic violence on to their fellow countrymen and women.
It is perhaps conceivable that in an age of rapid and mass consumption an invisible poor migrant population fits into an industry needing cheap labour. But, depressingly, it is not just Brazil’s lower-end clothes market that is benefiting from this poor labour.
In November 2016, Brazilian high street brand M. Officer was fined $2m by the country’s Labour Ministry for failing to monitor outsourced workshops in which Bolivians were found working in degrading, slave-like conditions.
The company has since begun an appeal against the fine, arguing that the Ministry doesn’t have the authority to criminalise the case. But this isn’t an isolated case. Brazilian labels Marisa, Pernambucanas, Renner, Les Lis Blanc – and, in 2011, even the international brand Zara – have been fined. All are substantial labels found to have similar problems in their supply chains. Their response was virtually the same: they didn’t know about or manage outsourcing conditions, though they say they have now improved their monitoring.
At Reporter Brasil, an NGO that investigates contemporary slave-like conditions across all sectors, they have managed to trace dresses from migrant worker to the final store. They discovered garments being sold for 1,000 percent more than the Bolivian worker was being paid to make it.
In order to help Brazilian consumers to buy ethically, Reporter Brasil has developed an app in which more than 100 brands are monitored: a green light for the ones that monitor their supply chain and have never been caught using slave labour; a red for those that have been caught, and are unwilling to monitor their chain or refuse to give out information about their suppliers.
Wages are pretty much standardised. Even when workers actually pay off their debts and “training fees”, their hourly wage is a quarter of Brazil’s minimum rate.
And yet the twist to this is all too distressing. Thousands of Bolivians will still prefer to settle for long arduous days, sitting at a machine in the same position, sleeping in the premises where they work – where work begins even before you eat your breakfast – than face the uncertainty of unemployment back in their home country.
There are 300,000 Bolivians in Sao Paulo, 90 percent of them, according to the Labour Ministry, work in the textile industry. How many of them are modern-day slaves is hard to know.
But as long as the market perpetuates the same cycle, others will follow.
Ultimately, the Brazil experience is no different from most other countries’, although in the West it is more globalised. We all like to pretend to be ethical but do we prefer to turn a blind eye?