The Buenos Aires city government's new offensive against slave labour has resulted in the closure of 30 clandestine textile sweatshops in the Argentine capital. But it has also caused divisions in the Bolivian immigrant community: some denounce the exploitative labour conditions, while others desperately want to keep their jobs, however precarious.
The crackdown on sweatshops operating in private houses began in earnest after the Mar. 30 tragedy in which one of the factories caught fire and six Bolivians died, including four children. It emerged after the disaster that 25 families were living and working in the overcrowded house.
Buenos Aires Minister of Production Enrique Rodríguez said that 30 out of 54 workshops inspected this week were closed, due to the appalling conditions in which about 300 Bolivians were working. Forty percent of the workers lived on the premises with their families.
"We have seen buildings that are in danger of collapsing and that are fire risks," said the city Minister of Human and Social Rights, Gabriela Cerruti. The Bolivians worked 12 to 18 hours a day because the businesses that purchase the merchandise produced by the factories pay "ridiculously low prices," she said.
Cerrutti said there are 1,600 clandestine sweatshops in the city, 200 of which employ slave labour, working 18-hour days for a weekly wage of 50 pesos (16 dollars), in overcrowded conditions.
The crackdown by the authorities triggered a clash within the Bolivian community in Argentina. On one hand are sweatshop owners and Bolivian workers calling for a six-month grace period to implement safety measures in the workplace without the loss of jobs.
This group has been holding street demonstrations over the past few days to demand more time to meet the regulations. It has the support of the Bolivian consulate in Buenos Aires. These employers and workers do not deny the bad working conditions, but blame them on the low prices paid by the corporations that own the clothing labels.
The sweatshops supply garments for top labels such as Olga Naum, Lácar and Montagne. For producing a garment that sells in shops for 600 pesos (200 dollars), the worker receives 50 cents of a dollar. Because of the extremely low piecework rate, the employees extend their workdays to augment their meagre monthly earnings.
On the other hand, Bolivians who belong to the La Alameda cooperative, who previously worked in clandestine clothing factories and managed to escape, have filed criminal charges against their former employers.
It is this small group that provided much of the information used by the authorities to close down some of the sweatshops.
In an interview with IPS, Néstor Escudero, a member of La Alameda, said that the courts had ordered bodyguards for seven members of the cooperative who received death threats this week for denouncing the conditions of slavery in which many of their fellow Bolivians are working
"The people who are worried (about the government crackdown) are the sweatshop owners who profit by slave labour, not the garment-workers. But the owners make their employees take part in the protest demonstrations - which they do because they're afraid of losing their job and their home û and they accuse the only people who have the courage to speak up and denounce them," Escudero explained.
He said many South Korean and Argentine sweatshop owners sell their merchandise to medium-sized and large stores for much more than they pay their workers.
Escudero underscored that the legal action taken by La Alameda is not aimed at small family workshops run by Bolivians, even clandestine ones, but at "sweatshops that enslave people, do not comply with hygiene or safety standards, and subject their workers to servitude," he said.
The operatives who escaped from one of the sweatshops and filed a legal complaint said they were lured to Argentina by newspaper ads published in Bolivia offering jobs with decent wages and housing for the entire family. But when they arrived in Buenos Aires they found they had to work 18 hours a day without pay.
The La Alameda cooperative took them in, and three years ago they set up a garment workshop, bakery, photocopy shop and crafts workshop. "We still don't earn much money, but we work six or seven hours a day in an atmosphere of freedom, learning about our rights, and living off the premises," Escudero said.
The cooperative also filed criminal charges against Bolivian Consul Álvaro González Quint, for "complicity, condoning crime and inciting violence." Escudero said that, instead of reporting the abuses perpetrated against his fellow citizens, the diplomat had offered to mediate between sweatshop owners and workers.
"He would call them in to his office as if it were a labour ministry, and get them to reach an agreement. Then he would have a document drawn up in which the owner promised to pay what he owed the employee, and in exchange the undocumented Bolivian worker would give up his right to initiate criminal proceedings against the owner," he said.
The consul justified his actions saying that the victims needed to keep their employment, and defended himself with the argument that it wasn't the Bolivian consulate's job to enforce city laws. "The embassy doesn't have police powers to close a factory," he said.
But the accusations against the consul do not end with his actions as a mediator. La Alameda says it has proof that González attended a protest demonstration by sweatshop workers this week, and incited them to violence against the cooperative and in support of owners asking for six months in which to bring their workshops into line with regulations.
The head of the city government's victim support office, psychologist Carmen Frías, pointed out that the Bolivian community in Argentina "is defenceless," and blamed the consulate for failing to facilitate legalisation procedures or complaints of exploitative working conditions.
"For many of them it is normal to work 18 hours a day," said the official, who is in charge of assisting the families affected by the Mar. 30 fire. "They have no protection, no documents, and they are afraid of losing their jobs, but we have to show them that they can work in decent conditions," she emphasised.
In Frías's opinion, far from helping to break up the networks of sweatshops, the consulate has contributed to their continued existence. "Bolivians now feel more protected by the city government than by their own embassy," she complained.
Cerrutti stated that her government will provide social assistance for the workers who lived, as well as worked, in the sweatshops that have been closed down.
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