For some, it may come as a surprise that Buenos Aires's fashion industry relies on slave labor. Even with Argentina's miraculous economic revival, the practice of using undocumented immigrants as slave laborers in sweat shops continues. An estimated 400 clandestine shops operate in Buenos Aires. And tens of thousands of undocumented Bolivians work in these unsafe plants.
A worker in the Alameda Workers Co-op.
Diseases like tuberculosis and lung complications are common due to the subhuman working conditions and constant exposure to dust and fibers. Many workers suffer from back injuries and tendonitis from sitting at a sewing machine 12 to 16 hours a day.
One worker, Naomi Hernández, joined the Union of Seamstress Workers "UTC", an assembly of undocumented textile workers, after escaping a sweat shop.
For two years I worked and slept in a three square-meter room along with my two children and three sewing machines my boss provided. They would bring us two meals a day. For breakfast a cup of tea with a piece of bread and lunch consisting of a portion of rice, a potato, and an egg. We had to share our two meals with our children because according to my boss, my children didn't have the right to food rations because they aren't workers and don't yield production.
She reported the subhuman conditions in her workplace and was subsequently fired.
Taking on sweat shops
Who would think that a Sunday social gathering could transform into a movement to fight sweat shops? For many Bolivian immigrants residing in Argentina, it was a question of survival. What began as a Sunday family outing grew into an organizing space for undocumented immigrants forced to work in subhuman conditions inside clandestine textile shops.
In the midst of Argentina's 2001 economic crisis, local assemblies sprouted throughout Buenos Aires. One assembly in particular dedicated its efforts to fighting slave-like conditions for undocumented immigrants. In the working class neighborhood of Parque Avelleneda, Bolivian workers began to meet on Sunday's at The Alameda Assembly.
The Alameda Workers Cooperative Co-op and the road ahead
The Alameda Assembly is a busy place. Aside from the soup kitchen which provides a nutritional meal for dozens of men, women and children, it also houses the Alameda Workers Cooperative. Workers who escaped sweat-shops formed the co-op in 2006.
The Alameda Workers Cooperative.
The men and women who work at this co-op have equal wages and work a maximum of 8 hours a day. They make decisions in a collective assembly. For Olga Cruz, working in a cooperative means that there's not a foreman or boss who takes away the profits and pays workers pennies.
"The worker is the one who has the most work and knowledge. They have to sew and give the garment its shape. The manufacturers and foremen of the big brands only know how to design, they don't know how to sew, which is the hard part."
Now the cooperative is creating its own designs. T-shirts and sweatshirts display graphics with lettering, "a world without slaves - eight-hours, period." With the help of a local fashion designer the co-op is set to launch its very own brand: Mundo Alameda. The UTC has also proposed that clandestine textile shops be shut down and handed over to the workers to manage them as co-ops and, ultimately, build a cooperative network that can bypass the middlemen and the entire piece-work system.
Marie Trigona is a journalist and radio producer based in Argentina. This article is based on a radio report she produced for Radio Netherlands Worldwide. She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com.