by Marcela Valente
(IPS) BUENOS AIRES -- Jose Orellana, a Bolivian immigrant who was able to escape with his family from a clandestine textile factory in Buenos Aires, told authorities of horrid living and working conditions and exploitation by his employers.
With the support of a community organization and the backing of the city ombudsperson's office, the immigrant brought charges against his former boss in October. But the factory owner was only held in remand for 15 days, until a judge ruled that there was no merit to the complaint.
The verdict has been appealed and the investigation continues.
Buenos Aires ombudsperson Alicia Pierini told IPS that the trial involving Orellana and others is a test case, and that her office is investigating several other cases as well. The charges against Orellana's employer, Juan Carlos Salazar, are trafficking of persons, forced labor, and violation of the law on home-based work.
"We are not interested so much in winning a particular case, as in discovering how the whole illegal economic system that enslaves so many people works," the defense lawyer declared. Pierini's office estimates 150,000 people have fallen victim to this new form of slavery. In addition to the sweatshops operating in Buenos Aires, there are others in districts on the outskirts of the capital like Avellaneda, Lomas de Zamora, Lanus and Laferrere. "They exploit us and threaten to hand us over to the police. When I was single I could claim my rights, but now with three children I have to accept the humiliation and submit to slavery," Orellana said.
Parque Avellaneda is a neighborhood on the west side of the Argentine capital. In this district alone, there are approximately 40 small sweatshops, according to investigators. The textile factories, which operate in what are ostensibly private homes, produce clothes for top-line labels like Montagne or Lacar.
The workers are Bolivian immigrants who are drawn to this country by the promise of a good income and a place to live. But soon after they arrive, many of them discover a hell on earth.
When Orellana started working, factory owner Salazar -- who also is Bolivian -- promised to pay him per garment produced. "We reckoned that I would earn 1,500 pesos a month. But when payday rolled around, Salazar would say he didn't have the money, or that he'd better keep it for me until the end of the year so I wouldn't spend it all," Orellana told IPS.
The boss would give him 20 pesos ($6.50) as an "advance." The food included in the contract was for "employees" only. "In order for my children (aged 5, 7 and 8) to eat, we had to go hungry ourselves," said Orellana.
The single room provided for the family of five was "a disaster."
"There were cables on the floor and running up the walls, and three sewing machines in use day and night, right next to our beds," he added.
According to records at the Durand and lvarez public hospitals, there are many undocumented immigrants in the neighborhood who have been admitted with tuberculosis and lung ailments caused by the dust they inhale in the workshops, or in their living quarters where the sewing machines operate around the clock.
Orellana recalls that the bathroom was shared with 20 other people, and that they were almost never allowed to go out into the street. He could only take his children to school, but not all the foreigners were permitted to do this. They couldn't take their children to the hospital, either, when they fell sick.
"Parties" were organized by the boss at the weekends, and the wine flowed freely so the workers would forget their troubles and not ask for permission to go out. "You had to argue a lot to be able to go out, and eventually we would be allowed to do so, but they would be angry with us for a whole week afterwards," he recounted.
According to Pierini, most of the victims are undocumented Bolivians smuggled into the country by bus, although smaller numbers of Peruvians, Paraguayans and Argentines are also submitted to forced labor as well.
"The Argentines and Paraguayans mostly work in factories producing footwear, but under similar conditions: earning extremely meager pay in sweatshops operating in residential buildings as part of a black-market trading network. But it's worse in the garment business, because whole families are locked up," she pointed out.
Pierini preferred not to comment on whether there is a lack of political will to eradicate this form of exploitation. "I can't rule out the possibility, but we need to continue to investigate without preconceptions, and see what we discover," she said.
If the charges can be made to stick, it will be the first case involving human trafficking for labor exploitation, rather than forced prostitution, in the country. (Earlier cases have involved sexual exploitation).
"So far no labor exploitation charges have been proven," Eugenio Freixas, the head of the public prosecutor's office's department of assistance to crime victims, said when he was informed of Orellana's case.
Freixas' department is in charge of enforcing the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons.
Dec. 2, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, commemorates the date in 1949 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, one of several international instruments aimed at combating modern-day slave labor.
Argentina ratified the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its three protocols on the trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, and illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, parts and ammunition, which went into effect in 2003.
But Argentina has not yet passed a federal law clamping down on trafficking in persons, as stipulated by the Convention and its protocols, said Freixas, whose department presented a bill to that effect in Congress.
Salazar, meanwhile, allegedly has threatened Orellana and the other Bolivians who were able to escape from his factory.
"They take advantage of us because they know that we Bolivians are submissive and hard-working," said Orellana.
After leaving the nightmare behind, Orellana opened a small bakery in the La Alameda community soup kitchen, and with his income he was able to rent a "decent" room with a bathroom for his family.
November 30, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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