May 3, 2006

Bolivians’ dreams turn sour in Argentina sweatshops

By Helen Popper

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- As thousands of Bolivians do every year, German Huanca said goodbye to his children and poor homeland and went to neighboring Argentina in hopes of finding well-paid work in clothing factories.

Huanca and his wife hoped to save money to buy a modest house and set up a business, but things did not go as planned. They were forced to work for three months without wages to pay back their bus tickets and only managed to save $300 in two years.

"We came here chasing the American dream, you could say. We dreamed of having a job and a house, but that's impossible due to the conditions," said Huanca, 35, sitting in Buenos Aires next to his wife, Gladys, 32, a skilled machinist who was being paid $150 a month for 14-hour shifts with hardly a day off.

Bolivia is South America's poorest country and Bolivians have long toiled as maids, construction workers and farm laborers in Argentina, where the economy is growing fast following its meltdown four years ago.

The Huancas' story is common among the workers of the secret sweatshops that help supply the growing textiles industry in Argentina -- long a magnet for economic migrants from poorer South American neighbors.

Many of the sweatshop workers live and work on the premises, taking turns to sleep between rolling shifts.

A fire in a clandestine factory that killed six Bolivians -- including four children -- in March drew attention to the illegal immigrants' plight, and nearly 100 such workshops have been shut down by city inspectors since the blaze.

A world away from the glamorous Buenos Aires fashion scene recently featured on the cover of French Vogue, workers contend the factory conditions amount to slavery, recounting tales of exploitation, intimidation and violence.

"Young women and girls suffer particularly. We've had cases of them being beaten by the factory owners," said Ana Maria Vargas, a pastor who works with Bolivian immigrants.

"There is emotional abuse too," she said, saying bosses sometimes threaten to call the police and seize workers' identity documents to stop them leaving.


Vargas said about 400 Bolivians cross into Argentina every weekend, swelling the ranks of the estimated 500,000 Bolivians living and working in the Argentine capital.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who himself was born into a poor family in the mining city of Oruro, has told how his first experience of school life was in northern Argentina where his father went to work on the sugar harvest.

A few do make their fortune. Among the sweatshop owners are Bolivians who started out as cheap labor and "build three or four-story houses in Bolivia but keep on living in the shantytowns here," according to Vargas.

But like most of the workers in the clandestine clothes factories, the Huancas' dreams were quickly shattered.

"We want to return to our homeland, but in Bolivia you work to eat and nothing more," said Huanca at the city council shelter they have called home since the closures that followed the fire shut their factory and left them jobless and homeless.

Despite everything, they hope to get work permits and another factory job -- a view many illegal immigrants share.

Carrying Bolivian flags and banners reading "We're workers, not slaves," thousands took to the streets of Buenos Aires in the days following the blaze demanding to have their immigration status in Argentina legalized.


Bolivian business leaders say the plight of the illegal immigrants is a symptom of successive governments' failure to generate steady work.

"In spite of being mistreated, they don't want to return to Bolivia because what they value most is having a secure source of work, even more than their own dignity," said Hans Hartmann Rivera, head of the Bolivian Foreign Trade Institute (IBCE).

They have chosen to "go from poverty to slavery" just to have the stable job Bolivia cannot offer them, he added.

According to Argentina's Clothing Industry Chamber (CIAI), more than 50 percent of garments made in the country come from the secretive sweatshops.

Local newspapers have accused well-known, and sometimes expensive, brands of using exploitative labor.

Pablo Sonne, chief executive of the Rever Pass clothing company, says his employees work legally with good conditions.

He said firms can unknowingly have their contracts passed onto less scrupulous subcontractors and called for current laws to be tightened to put an end to the sweatshops.

"The legislation must be corrected and all the people who work here illegally must be brought into the legal circuit," he said. "The most important thing a brand has is its reputation. No brand can grow if it uses illegality."

Bolivian immigrant Rene, 41, who declined to give his surname, had his documents taken from him by factory bosses but managed to escape at a soccer match on a Sunday -- his only time off.

"It's slavery being carried out by our own people against their fellow countrymen," he said. "Sometimes I feel disappointed I came to Buenos Aires."