The children – aged seven and ten – were unable to escape the basement where they were sleeping when the fire began. Two adults, thought to be the parents of at least one of the children, were treated in hospital for smoke inhalation and burns. All four came from Bolivia. The house was among several illegal workshops producing clothing in the vicinity. In Buenos Aires city there are an estimated 25,000 illegal immigrants.
Too often sweatshops are associated with Asia but Argentine possesses what they call talleres clandestinos or clandestine workshops. Gustavo Vera, a Buenos Aires city deputy, said: “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."
Olga, from Sucre in south Bolivia, recalls the conditions in the clandestine workshops. “We lived and worked in the factory and were only allowed to leave occasionally as the factory owner didn’t want us to be seen too much around the neighbourhood.” These micro-sweatshops are conspicuously set up in houses and flats. They are small, overcrowded and as concealed as possible from the public eye. “All the workers and their families slept and ate together amongst the machines,” says Olga. The worker has no contract and no standard employment practices are adhered to. Sometimes workers receive pay, sometimes not. The only contract they may be forced to sign states that they will stick around for a minimum time, usually three years, and will not talk to the police. The workers are isolated and victimised and have little option of escaping. Their documents are often taken away from them when they arrive; they are illegal immigrants with limited rights in Argentina. “We just kept silent about the workshop, as we knew we didn’t have any documents and we didn’t know where to go for help.” Workshop owners bribe policemen to keep quiet. Olga describes how bribes were carried out in front of her and fellow workers. Seeing that the police were also against them made them realise the hopelessness of their situation.
A hundred 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.
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. 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.
Gustavo Vera, a school teacher who runs the activities of the Alameda, a community organization, explains that the government has knowingly tolerated the operation of clandestine workshops for years. “The government is capitalist, classist and bourgeoisie, therefore their interests lie in protecting the big labels who are making huge profit margins by fabricating their clothes in these workshops. Besides, the state wants to keep production of Argentine textiles inside the country, and clamping down on micro-sweatshops in Buenos Aires will undoubtedly mean fabrication moves to cheaper neighbouring countries. There are two myths concerning micro-sweatshops, both supported by the media who also act favourably to large labels which they rely on for advertising. The first is that sweatshop production is associated with fakes, which are unfair competition to the real designers. And the second is that price reflects the fabrication process of clothes. However, in reality it is the big well-known labels that use sweatshops, and the price a consumer pays has no correlation to the wage the worker in a factory receives.”
According to statistics published by the Alameda, if an item of clothing is sold in a shop for $100, the workshop receives $3.12, of which $1.87 goes to the worker, $0.30 is profit for the workshop owner and $0.95 covers the workshop’s costs. $10 cover the shop’s expenses and $22 are lost to tax. The clothes label takes a profit of $64.88.
Bolivia’s consul Jose Alberto González also explains about a new programme, ‘Buenos Aires Produce’, aimed at legitimising the factories. Workshop owners should participate ‘voluntarily’ (if they chose not to participate in the programme their workshop will be closed down) and will be given a year to bring health and safety standards up to scratch and create separate spaces for working and living.
“‘Buenos Aires Produce’, along with other state initiatives to combat the problem, presents the workshop owner as the only baddy. As I understand it, the big labels – who fix the prices taking the greatest slice of the profit for themselves and leaving the workshops, owners and workers, the crumbs – are the real baddies. Of course, the workshop owners treat the workers badly and even subject them to slavery, but that is just one side of the reality. If ‘Buenos Aires Produce’ goes ahead, the factory owners won’t be able to afford to make the necessary changes to their workshops. They will either be closed down or will move out to the province where the law does not apply.”