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ARGENTINA: Incentive for Eliminating Slave Labour

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 22 2007 (IPS) - A public institute in Argentina is offering “certificates of quality” to firms that do not use slave labour in the textile industry, where 80 percent of workers operate in the informal sector of the economy.

Besides cracking down on sweatshops, the idea is to favour companies that provide their employees with decent working conditions, social security coverage and labour benefits when it comes to large purchases by the state, of military uniforms, for example.

The National Institute of Industrial Technology’s (INTI) voluntary certification programme for clothing companies was launched as a result of the outcry triggered by a fire that broke out in a clandestine textile factory in Buenos Aires on Mar. 30, 2006, killing two Bolivian women and four children.

Argentina is a magnet for workers from neighbouring Bolivia, South America’s poorest country. And a large part of the Bolivian immigrants, most of whom are undocumented, work in the black market, in sweatshops that do not respect the country’s labour laws.

The construction industry is another big source of jobs for Bolivians.

The March 2006 tragedy sparked a flood of complaints about clandestine factories in which workers produce brand-name clothing in slavery-like conditions.

The workers, mainly illegal immigrants from Bolivia or other nearby countries, are hired with the promise of decent wages and room and board. They then find out that they have to work for 12 to 18 hours a day, earning little to nothing. But their employers retain their documents, so they are unable to leave.

Safety conditions in the sweatshops are far from adequate. Workers, often accompanied by their families, live in overcrowded conditions on the premises, and many are never allowed to leave the grounds.

“The large clothing labels subcontract out their work to these illegal workshops, which escape oversight,” Pablo Bergel, coordinator of the INTI certificate of quality programme, told IPS.

In the La Alameda Cooperative, made up of workers who have escaped sweatshops in Buenos Aires, members say the clandestine factories are not fringe operations but are part of the textile industry’s modus operandi, which is based on the exploitation of cheap immigrant labour.

In the last two years, the cooperative has filed legal complaints against roughly a hundred workshops that violate labour rights and immigration laws, and presented a list of 72 top clothing labels that subcontract their work out to sweatshops.

These include fashion designer Graciela Naum, whose main client was Máxima Zorreguieta, who married Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands in 2002.

The press reported that the princess has stopped purchasing clothing from Naum. The designer, meanwhile, has denied the allegations that she relies on sweatshop labour.

To combat the clandestine factories, INTI decided to offer the new certificate of quality to clothing companies, including factories and suppliers along the entire production chain. Firms interested in taking part in the programme must undergo a series of inspections and audits to gain a certificate.

The applicant company must show that it provides its employees with decent, safe, environmentally-friendly working conditions all along the production chain, and that it does not use child or forced labour, violence or discrimination. The workers must be on the payroll and registered in the social security system.

As an incentive for participating companies, INTI signed an agreement this month with the Defence Ministry and with the Buenos Aires provincial Education Ministry, which thus committed themselves to favouring companies that have joined the programme when making purchases.

These two ministries are key, because of the number of military and public school uniforms that they purchase. “This agreement is based on positive discrimination towards companies that are committed to respecting the law as well as the welfare of their employees,” said Buenos Aires Education Minister Adriana Puiggrós.

The members of La Alameda believe the initiative is good but hardly sufficient, because it does not force companies to comply with labour standards and legislation. With respect to the ministries’ support for the programme, the president of the cooperative, Gustavo Vera, told IPS that in order to create a large market for non-sweatshop goods, all public bodies should take part in the programme.

Vera said it is a utopia to believe that the companies will really accept inspections and audits. “The firms have shown up to see what it’s all about, but they aren’t going to let themselves be monitored, because they have a lot to hide,” he maintained.

“To make the garment industry sustainable, the certification would have to be mandatory, and the Economy Ministry would have to intervene, to control the cost structure,” he argued.

Some top clothing stores like Montagne sell shirts to customers for 200 dollars, while paying the clandestine factories where they are produced just 0.50 cents of a dollar per garment, said Vera. In other cases, according to local press reports, workers receive 0.30 cents of a dollar for making a pair of jeans that, depending on the brand name, is sold to the public for between 80 and 150 dollars.

After the March 2006 sweatshop fire, the city’s Minister of Human and Social Rights, Gabriela Cerruti, said there are some 1,600 of these clandestine workshops, where workers earn around 16 dollars a week and work 18-hour days.

The president of La Alameda said that because of the stricter controls implemented since the tragedy, the owners of small workshops have complained that the top labels have begun looking for workshops outside of the city of Buenos Aires, in areas where clandestine factories that operate with the complicity of the police are mushrooming.

INTI’s Bergel said he is aware that the effort to fight slave labour will be an uphill task, especially since the Institute lacks police powers to close down sweatshops or directly combat labour exploitation.

“What we are offering is a certificate that will facilitate access to large customers and grant prestige to labels that follow the rules. We’ll see if consumers also value it. Perhaps it is a utopia,” said the official, “but at least we’re trying.”

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