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LABOUR-ARGENTINA: Tragedy Spurs Action Against Slave Labour

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 3 2006 (IPS) - Denunciations of sweatshops operating in the Argentine capital have piled up over the past few years in the city government and the courts. But not until six undocumented immigrants – including four children – died in a fire did the authorities announce measures to crack down on the network of clandestine textile factories that use slave labour.

Six Bolivian immigrants – two women, two three-year-olds, a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old – were killed in a blaze that broke out Thursday night in one of the sweatshops operating in a residential neighbourhood in the capital.

Reports on the existence of a broad network of clandestine textile and footwear factories whose workers are kept in conditions of virtual slavery have periodically emerged in Argentina.

In 2005, several Bolivians who were able to escape from the factory where they were locked in and forced to work 18 hours a day reported the situation to the city of Buenos Aires ombudsperson’s office, which brought a lawsuit against the factory owner.

The association of dressmakers estimates that there are nearly 400 clandestine sweatshops.

The owners of the factories pay off inspectors and the police, said Gustavo Vera, president of the La Alameda Cooperative in Bajo Flores, a working-class neighbourhood on the west side of Buenos Aires, where 60 percent of the poorest residents are from Bolivia.

He added that when workers escape their slave-like conditions and go to police stations to file a report, they are usually turned away because they are undocumented immigrants.

The group of Bolivians who brought a lawsuit provided testimony and information that was used by the ombudsperson’s office to produce a report which states that the sweatshops in the city number at least 120, and that they “employ” some 120,000 people in slave-like conditions.

Most of the workers are from Bolivia, although immigrants from Paraguay and Peru, and even Argentines, work in the clandestine factories, city Ombudswoman Alicia Pierini told IPS.

The Bolivian consul in Buenos Aires, Álvaro González Quint, said last week after the tragic fire that he met with national Ombudsman Eduardo Mondito to press for faster progress in adopting measures aimed at dismantling the network of clandestine sweatshops, where undocumented immigrants are locked up and mistreated.

“How can it be possible that a licensed factory was operating in these conditions in a residential area?” asked a visibly moved González Quint, standing next to the building where the fire broke out and the victims were trapped when the roof caved in.

Pierini said the investigation by the city ombudsperson’s office proved the existence of an underground economy in which immigrants were forced to work as virtual slaves.

In the case of last week’s fire in the Caballito neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, the workers were Bolivians who had been hired in their country with the promise of decent wages and room and board, and provided with transportation to Buenos Aires, either on their own or with their families.

But once these foreigners arrive, they find that they have to work for 12 to 18 hours a day while living in squalid conditions on the premises, and that they are basically not allowed to leave the factory.

Pierini said there was a “lack of political will” for fighting the problem, which is present in several districts in Greater Buenos Aires.

They earn meagre wages, and the owners of the factories frequently fail to even pay them at all, José Orellana, one of the Bolivians who escaped along with his wife and three children, told IPS.

He and his co-workers and their families lived in overcrowded rooms in the factory with exposed electric wiring, sharing one bathroom among 20 people. They had one day off a week but were not allowed to leave the grounds. Instead, the boss threw “parties” on the weekends, providing plenty of wine so that the workers would forget their troubles and not ask for permission to go out.

After the ombudsperson’s office brought legal action, Orellana’s boss – who was also Bolivian – was arrested in October 2005. But he was released after just two weeks, when a judge ruled that there was no merit to the complaint. However, the judge was declared incompetent. The case has not yet been assigned to another magistrate.

Despite the authorities’ failure to combat the problem, city officials responded with surprise and indignation after last week’s tragedy, which they blamed on slave labour “mafias”, while urging local residents to report the clandestine factories.

Buenos Aires Mayor Jorge Telerman admitted that the sweatshop, whose owners are from Argentina, was licensed by the city government in 2001 to operate as an embroidery factory.

But the workers there were “subjected to slavery conditions,” he said, announcing a free hot-line for local residents to report suspicions of sweatshops operating in their neighbourhoods.

Telerman was named mayor on Mar. 13, after his predecessor Aníbal Ibarra was impeached and removed from office on the grounds that poor government safety regulation contributed to a tragic December 2004 nightclub fire that left a death toll of 194.

After last Thursday’s blaze, the city’s new minister of production, Enrique Rodríguez, sacked the director-general of protection of labour, Florencio Varela, who had been appointed just two days earlier, and ordered an investigation into the reports of bribes being paid to the police.

Rodríguez said that in the district where the factory was located, children often live with their mothers in the sweatshops where they are employed. “That isn’t just black market work (in which employees do not receive social security coverage or other rights and benefits), but slave labour,” he added.

He also admitted “shortcomings” in the city’s controls and regulations, and said he would immediately begin to talk to representatives of the local community, to investigate.

But the information on the factory was already in the hands of the ombudsperson’s office and the legal system, prior to last week’s fire.

Neighbours as well as workers in the factory said the police made frequent visits there to demand bribes, threatening to turn the factory owners in for employing undocumented immigrants. Some also said the inspectors had been paid off as well.

Vera told the local Mitre radio station that slave labour has been occurring at least since 2003.

He explained that workers are drawn in through classified ads in Bolivian newspapers, and that there are transport companies that are paid bribes to smuggle the immigrants into Argentina as “tourists.”

The sweatshops, which operate in what are ostensibly private homes, work for large textile factories, often producing clothes for top-line labels.

Although some of the garments they produce sell for up to 200 dollars, the immigrants are paid the equivalent of just 50 cents of a dollar, said Vera.

He also said that 25 Bolivians and their families worked in the factory where the fire broke out last Thursday, which produced jeans for 80 Argentine cents (30 cents of a dollar) per garment.

The activist pointed out that his cooperative had already turned over to the ombudsperson’s office detailed information on all of the sweatshops, including their location, how many machines operate in each factory, and their escape routes in case of raids..

That means “the government already knows,” he underlined, adding that only the ombudsperson’s office has done anything about the situation

Argentine Interior Minister Aníbal Fernández immediately ordered the federal police chief to take action against the local police station in the district where the factory reportedly operated by paying off the police.

Local residents complained about being urged to denounce something that is already an open secret. “There are two other sweatshops in this same block, and another around the corner,” a neighbour of the factory told television reporters.

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