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?
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. Continue reading
"Nunca mas" Never Again--the title of Argentina's human rights' report on the victims of the Dirty War. Part of the memorial dedicated to the victims of the Cromagnon Fire.
It has become clear to me that the Luis Viale fire was, at its moment, very important in bringing the existence of slave labor and undocumented immigration into the spotlight, albeit for a limited time.
One of the issues that was publicly revealed through the fire was the existing extensive network that smuggled immigrants, mostly Bolivian though not exclusively, to Buenos Aires to live and work in these clandestine textile shops. From what I can see, at the time of the fire, oddly enough, Argentine newspapers were giving lots of coverage to George Bush’s 2006 proposed Guest Worker Plan, and the criminalization of the undocumented in the United States, without a mention of the country’s own increasingly problematic status with respect to its undocumented residents. However, within a month of the fire, national legislation was launched called Plan Patria Grande, intended to facilitate the legalization of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the surrounding countries that include but are not limited to Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. I was told by an attorney that works for the Ombudsman to the City of Buenos Aires that one of the problems with the execution/implementation of this legislation among the Bolivian sweatshop workers (among them the 50 some survivors of the fire) was that it required participants to provide government documentation from their home country. This was a nearly impossible condition for many of these workers to fulfill given that they had had this documentation taken away from them when they were trafficked into the country. There were also multiple allegations from the Bolivian community that the Bolivian Consulate had committed to facilitate and assist the victims in obtaining this paperwork but was in fact overcharged and drew out the process. President Morales replaced the head consul shortly thereafter. Continue reading
Part of the mural dedicated to the victims of the sweatshop fire at 1269 Luis Viale. "No olvidamos" "Con el maltrato, no hay trato"
A view of the whole mural and the burned out building
On March 30th, 2006, a fire in a clandestine textile workshop on Calle Luis Viale in the working class neighborhood of Caballito, Buenos Aires, killed five children and one woman, all of whom were undocumented Bolivians living and working with 50 some other immigrants in the building. My project is to try to understand the way this fire was constructed in the media, the ways the Bolivian garment worker community, and various other actors responded to the tragedy and why they responded in the way/s they did. I am also interested in learning what, if anything, has changed as a result of the fire, as well as the way it has been remembered subsequently.
I have been in Buenos Aires for almost two weeks now. This is my first time here so this time has been as much about getting oriented, and learning to use the bus and subway, as it has been about starting to reach out to potential contacts.
Earlier this week, I spoke with the members of a workers’ cooperative, called Alameda. There seem to be several immigrant garment workers’ groups in the city and Alameda is one of the most vocal and politically active and had submitted testimony and evidence to the city about several illegal and exploitative garment shops even prior to the fire. Olga Cruz, one of the original organizers (alongside the president Gustavo Vera), spoke at length to me about the challenges facing immigrant workers in their search to making a decent living and the issues of corruption, particularly related to the collaboration of the police force and labor inspectors with the workshop owners, that allows this kind of exploitation to exist. Alameda has also formed its own garment clothing chain, along with a worker’s cooperative in Thailand.I am looking forward to attending one of Alameda’s worker meetings tonight. Continue reading