Going Back to Look for the Gray

Wachs - Argentina - Government propaganda
Government propaganda in the subway system urging workers to work on the books.

My last couple weeks in Buenos Aires were a bit of a whirlwind as  I continued my interviews and visits along with the archival research while preparing to leave.

One of the questions that started to come up in some of my final interviews was what exactly constituted slave labor and what agency was there to be attributed to immigrants working in sweatshops in the city. Was there a difference between labor exploitation and slave labor and did that matter? Did workers’ conditions improve according to their legal status? What was the role of the workers themselves in accepting these conditions? What were the workers’ interests/hopes when they entered these shops and were they being met?

Wachs - Argentina - Comic connecting textile work with slave labor
Comic connecting textile work with slave labor and US slave history, El Clarin, April 2006.

The vice-consul at the Bolivian consulate, along with another former human rights Bolivian attorney with whom I spoke, touched on issues of agency by indicating there is a sort of “culture of sacrifice” among Bolivians that allows them to experience the difficulties facing them in Argentina not so much as injustice but rather as a necessary evil through which they have to pass in order to support their families-and that, in the end, several of them will be on the employer/exploiter. Though one could argue that this understanding of these immigrants and their predicaments gives agency it also seems to also be essentializing Bolivians, and “victim blaming” as well, and thus is problematic in its own way.

An Argentine anthropologist with whom I spoke raised the issue of agency when she told me she felt that the press’ portrayal of the immigrant labor exploitation at the time of the fire was very problematic in that it did not leave space for any gray. Among other things, the press’ coverage did not address the issue that there were immigrants who were choosing to working jobs in which labor laws were not being respected because they were able to put in extra hours (and thus earn more money), or individuals who themselves ended up being exploitative employers once they made enough money to buy their own machines.

One of the marches that took place several weeks after the Luis Viale fire demonstrated the complex and multi-layered nature of the agency/ worker issues to which the anthropologist referred and also the divisions within the Bolivian textile worker community. In the picture below you can see thousands of workers protesting outside of and against a community organization known as the Alameda, that had been very active and public in denouncing the labor exploitation of the textile workers in the city. In the photo you can see some of the workers, and their employers, protesting the raids and shut-downs of workshops that the city was conducting, and the Alameda’s cooperative’s perceived role in the process. You can also see that a special police swat force had been called out to protect the cooperative.

Wachs - Argentina - Violent confrontation
Violent confrontation of textile owners and their employees with the members of the Alameda workers' cooperative in 2006

I have realized recently that part of the challenge of the upcoming semester is going to be looking back at this newspaper research and interviews for instances such as the above one– the grey spaces in the history of the fire–because that is probably where the truer and more nuanced stories lie.

Post by Katti Wachs — MA Candidate CLACS at NYU

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