Argentina: forced labour and change

Item number 6: The flowery summer dress

Wearing one and showing another of the Six Items with Tamara from La Alameda.

I told the story of the Six Items Challenge a couple of nights ago at a public event here in Argentina (organised by Amartya) to get the audience to think about some of their own clothes. I asked them to consider some of the questions that I’ve been asking myself about something they were wearing:

  • How did you acquire it?
  • What is it made of?
  • Where was it made?
  • Who has touched it from its origins as raw materials until it arrived in your wardrobe?
  • What happens to it whilst you own it? Does it sit in your cupboard and never get worn? Do you wear it often and wash it often?
  • What happens to it when you are finished with it?

I used two of my Six Items to illustrate how the clothes we wear can affect people and the planet. The cotton dress was probably grown on a farm that uses vast quantities of chemicals to control pests as cotton production is responsible for using 25% of the world’s insecticides .  It’s not unlikely it was grown in Uzbekistan, where the government uses forced child labour. It was then probably produced in a factory where wages are low and working hours are long. Possibly (it’s second hand so I don’t know for sure) it has been washed, ironed and dried so many times that more energy has been used in laundering than in production. In contrast, the polyester dress is made from oil, with all the related problems with that raw material as a finite resource, contributor to pollution and object of conflict.  There is a long list of chemicals toxic to humans, animal life and the environment that are used to transform that oil into polyester so that it  can be made into clothes. And then after I’ve finished with it, will it sit in a hole in the ground for many years after I’ve gone?

Tamara Rosenberg from the hugely inspirational workers’ organisation La Alameda spoke next.  Most clothes in Argentina are made in small workshops employing just a small number of workers, say 5-15. Of these, between 70 and 80% are estimated to be clandestine, unregistered workplaces.  Few of the Bolivian workers who mainly work in these workplaces are registered either. This means that appalling conditions are the norm in the industry.  Workers are afraid to report abusive workshop owners because they may lose their jobs or be deported. Luis, a Bolivian worker I met when I first got to know La Alemeda, told me the story of his experience. He came to Argentina with his family to find work.  He was subjected to appalling treatment in the garment workshop,  and neither he nor his family were allowed to freely leave the workshop where they also lived. He was essentially a slave, terrified to escape.  As he told his story, his shame of having brought his family into that situation was palpable.  He eventually made contact with  La Alameda, who were able to rescue him and his family.

The story of forced labour is common here. Tamara explained how La Alemeda, which is a worker’s cooperative, is fighting to defend workers in so many different ways, completely voluntarily.  They have formed a trade union as well as running a community cafe where workers can meet. It takes legal cases on behalf of the workers, makes public denunciations and organises demonstrations. It has also set up a workers’ cooperative, making t-shirts and sweatshirts for the local market. It’s members are all ex-workers from the mainstream industry.  One of their customers is the cooperative of cardboard collectors that you see everywhere here sorting through people’s rubbish on the street to retrieve valuable stuff from the waste so that it can have a second life.  As you can imagine, these workers are viewed with disdain, but by forming their own co-operative and wearing their uniforms made by La Alemeda they have increased their own pride in their work and are challenging people’s attitudes towards them. La Alemeda have also joined forces with Dignity Returns, another garment workers’ cooperative, from Thailand to form No Chains a global anti-sweatshop brand, selling t-shirts designed by an international group of artists.

There are so many other inspiring stories of action here in Argentina. The government department INTI have set up a certification scheme to signify that workplaces are decent and have also established an incubator unit for emerging garment workers’ cooperatives.  Onda Organica shared the story of some of the challenges they face in setting up an organic cotton t-shirt company for the Argentinian market. They source their organic cotton from producers in Peru, which is woven into fabric in the workers’ co-op Pigue, one of the ‘recuperated’ factories in Argentina that were taken over by the workers in the wake of the economic crisis at the beginning of the century.  Pigue is also involved in the Cadena Textil Solidaria, a fair trade cotton supply chain from seed to clothes all within Argentina.

The energy for change is in the air.There are challenges, and its never going to be easy, but I have no doubt that the activists, organisations and entrepreneurs that are commited to bringing about real change,will do so in an inspirational way.


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